[Interim Conservative Leader Rona Ambrose and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau/The Canadian Press]
Experts say that if interim Leader Rona Ambrose goes against her repeated plans to step down and seeks to turn her current gig into a permanent position, in next year’s leadership election, the Conservative Party of Canada could miss a chance for renewal.
Postmedia columnist Michael Den Tandt wrote last week that Ambrose had the best shot of any of the potential leaders in taking on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, suggesting his youthful vigor would be a challenge for other candidates to overcome.
As interim Tory leader, Ambrose is prevented from running for the permanent spot by the party’s own rules. But Den Tandt says those could be changed if Conservatives rallied around Ambrose before the leadership vote is cast in May 2017.
Nelson Wiseman, a political scientist at the University of Toronto, said it’s highly unlikely Ambrose would choose to run for the permanent spot.
Those who want to campaign for the Conservative leadership will have a spending limit of about $5 million, and Wiseman said he expects the top-tier candidates to spend most or the entire amount.
“If she wants to run, she would have to start raising money very soon,” he said. “If she’s raising money, she can’t serve as the interim leader.”
Speculation is building around several current and former MPs, including Jason Kenney, Peter MacKay, Tony Clement and Lisa Raitt, who are looking to take over as the Conservative Party adjusts to life after Stephen Harper.
Outside candidates, such as businessman and reality TV star Kevin O'Leary, may also throw their hat into the ring.
Wiseman said it’s early enough that anything could happen between now and the final leadership vote. He pointed to the success of Belinda Stronach, who came second to Harper in the 2004 contest for leadership of the newly formed Conservative Party before she had even been elected as an MP.
“It’s all built around the person,” he said. “It used to be that you worked your way up in the party, you were a good speech maker, people like the way you worked, and you became party leader. That’s not the way anymore.”
The next leader, he said, will put his or her own stamp and spin on a party looking for ideas.
Queen’s University political science professor Kathy Brock said that Ambrose running for the leadership would be a bad idea, particularly if it became a sort of coronation.
After more than a decade under Harper, she said, the Conservative Party needs wide-open nomination between politicians of different stripes to hash out its principles and set a new course.
“One of the things our parties have learned to be wary of is that when the party apparatus tries to bend the rules or affect the race, it can have negative consequences,” she said.
“They now have to re-evaluate where they are and where they’re going to, and a leadership race can help them do that.”
A contentious nomination will also drive interest in the party, she said, as well as media headlines.
“The Conservative Party itself should be encouraging lots of people to run,” she said. “That can only broaden the base.”
The biggest mistake for the party, she said, would be to choose a new leader based on how they match up to Trudeau.
“Choosing your leader for the future on the basis of where the leader of another party is today would be wrong,” she said. “They should choose someone not to defeat the Liberals but to lead the Conservatives tomorrow.”
Mike Storeshaw, a spokesman for Ambrose, said the Alberta MP has no interest in running for the leadership and has said as much before when asked about her future.
“She’s always said that the rules are clear that the interim leader cannot run for the permanent leadership,” he said. “She ran for the interim leadership knowing that, and she’s happy to continue to do the important job she’s been asked to do with no interest in running for the permanent position.”