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John Ivison: A favourite of 'red-meat' Conservatives, John Baird hasn't closed door on a leadership bid

John Baird once remarked that he has never harboured ambitions to lead a political party – a view he still embraces.
John Baird once remarked that he has never harboured ambitions to lead a political party – a view he still embraces.

John Baird has not said no. Political allies trying to convince the former minister to enter the Conservative leadership race say he is leaning against a bid but can’t bring himself to close the door.

“It’s possible but it’s a long-shot,” said one person with knowledge of his thinking.

When Peter MacKay handed in the $300,000 entry fee and 3,000 signatures of support nearly two months ahead of the party’s deadline, he painted a giant target on his back.

It was a bold move, bordering on arrogance, that sent out the message to other candidates that the former justice minister is in a league of his own when it comes to fund-raising and organizing. He has built solid support in caucus, with around 20 MPs coming out in his favour.

But his early move has also galvanized resistance among party members who want another top level challenger to emerge – particularly those in the West who feel disengaged from the contest.

Even though he hails from Ontario, Baird, 50, fits that bill. “The base loves John Baird because they’re red-meat Conservatives, just like him,” said one respected voice in the party.

This space explored some of the disquiet with MacKay’s campaign earlier this week. It’s never hard to find a naysayer. The surprise in MacKay’s case is how senior those people are. One influential Conservative said the feeling that MacKay should not be leader is most widespread among people who worked with him in Ottawa.

He said there was a sense among his colleagues that he coasted on “old boy charm” during his time in government.

That view may be unfair but it is undeniably out there – and it is why Baird is fielding plenty of calls from sympathizers who don’t feel they have a horse in the race.

He was chairing Pierre Poilievre’s campaign, until the candidate pulled the plug. Poilievre would have been a candidate in the image of former prime minister, Stephen Harper.

Erin O’Toole is purporting to be that true blue Conservative, and many who don’t like the idea of MacKay as leader remain open to his candidacy.

Baird has admitted to people close to him that the Conservative Party is in 'rough shape'

But neither has Baird’s experience, nor his innate political skills.

“John speaks French, he’s smart, political and didn’t get into any trouble as a minister. He knows how to run government and political parties. What else do we want?” asked one unaligned Conservative, who pointed out that Baird stood up for Western interests when he held the environment and transport portfolios.

Baird was hailed by the resource industry for opposing a carbon tax and introducing only modest cuts in greenhouse gas emissions as environment minister – a performance that earned him the enmity of climate change activists.

A Conservative since he was 16, Baird once owned a cat called Thatcher. He was first elected as part of Mike Harris’ Ontario PC government in 1995 and he has held a number of senior portfolios at Queen’s Park and in Ottawa, including a stint as foreign affairs minister. He has often been mentioned as a leadership contender but once remarked that he has never harboured ambitions to lead a party – a view he still espouses.

He has made a lucrative transition into the private sector, taking board positions at Canadian Pacific Railway and Barrick Gold, among other roles.

Those interests could prove counter-productive to any foray back into politics.

Baird’s appearance on Saudi television in 2018 – a country where Barrick has significant mining interests – raised eyebrows, after he criticized the Liberal government’s call for the release of political prisoners and urged Justin Trudeau to apologize to the Saudi royal family. The remarks were in stark contrast to his aggressive support of human rights, particularly LGBT rights, when he was foreign affairs minister.

Friends say it is unlikely he will give up the relative tranquility of the private sector, where his life and opinions are not subject to media scrutiny.

Yet he has admitted to people close to him that the Conservative Party is in “rough shape” and that he can’t bring himself to be definitive.

A bid remains feasible. The leadership team that he helped build as chair of Poilievre’s campaign could be re-activated at short notice and pulling together $25,000 and 1,000 signatures of support by the end of this month would not be insurmountable.

“Red meat” Conservatives for Baird will probably end up being disappointed. But the door is still ajar.

• Email: jivison@postmedia.com | Twitter:

Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2020

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