“The next time around, we’ll bury them!”
It was a call to arms from former premier Danny Williams.
Devoted Tories cheered when he delivered that line to disappointed Danny Breen supporters Wednesday night. The outcome of the Virginia Waters byelection was known by the time Williams spoke to the crowd.
The Tories have lost a seat that, up till two months ago, had been held by Kathy Dunderdale. While Williams and Premier Tom Marshall would like to spin the byelection outcome as being good in some way, reality says otherwise.
Marshall really tried to snatch some kind of victory from the jaws of defeat. “We are back in the game,” he said, “Look where we were in the polls. We are back.”
Such bravado should perhaps be expected, but trying to sell this outcome as anything other than a loss is silly. There is not one shred of victory to be taken from it, and trying to portray it as some kind of turn-around in fortune assumes the average voter is blind to what they see and willing to accept Marshall’s and Williams’ rose-coloured view of the party’s circumstance.
Here’s the reality: the Tories have lost three byelections in a row, and within a single year the Liberal opposition has gone from six members to 12. The Tories had one of their most outspoken and loyal supporters desert them for the Liberals, and rumours of unrest and near- panic inside the party abound.
Not one sitting PC member wants the top job, so two fairly unknown outsiders are vying to be premier. None of this is positive.
Despite the sympathetic polling numbers that Marshall enjoys, they are not stable and will dissipate as soon as he leaves the stage. From a political strategy standpoint, Marshall’s numbers mean nothing. Frank Coleman’s numbers will matter, but Marshall is going home, and any popularity he enjoys will go with him.
The results of the byelection tell a disturbing tale for the Tories. Less than 50 per cent of eligible voters went to the polls. That’s how it usually goes in byelections, but this one had particular significance for the Tories. They needed to come out of this with a win. Had Breen been successful, they could have legitimately argued that they had indeed turned a corner. But a lot of Tories stayed home.
Not surprisingly, people on the outside looking in at the byelection put a lot of stock in Danny Williams showing up to campaign for Breen. Some were sure it was a good sign. But was it? Williams admitted he was ignoring his own advice, that former premiers should “shut up and go away.”
Instead, he was highly visible and spent some real political capital on the loss.
Did he overshadow a good candidate by being too out front? Was he too visible?
Unlike Williams and Marshall, NDP Leader Lorraine Michael did not try to sugarcoat the outcome for her candidate. The problems plaguing her party over the last year are still with her, and while she tried to paint Sheilagh O’Leary’s defeat in the best light, she acknowledged the New Democrats are “still bearing the brunt of what happened in October.”
Two of her five caucus members left the party last year and recently joined the Liberals. Much like the Tories, the New Democrats are in trouble. Despite the respect Michael holds in political circles, she is no longer able to advance the party.
All of this is good news for the Liberals. I’d say the party is feeling a little smug these days, knowing that they only have to stay out of trouble and victory is pretty much assured.
Williams and Marshall can’t be blamed for trying to lift the spirits of disappointed supporters. It’s natural to put your best face forward.
But the truth must be told.
The Tories are not back and they’re not in a position to bury anyone.
Randy Simms is a political commentator and broadcaster. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org