Remember Canada 1993

Changing the leader does not always help parties at the polls, Hugh Winsor reports from Ottawa

IT IS the Conservative Party's worst nightmare, and last Thursday, as the local government election results came in from around England and Wales, it returned to haunt them. It is the "Canadian scenario".

A year and a half ago, after nine years in office, the Canadian Conservatives went to the country defending 156 seats in Parliament. They won just two. It was political catastrophe on a scale rarely seen and the thought of it is enough to bring any British Tory out in a cold sweat.

But it may have a moral for those who think a change of leaders is what Britain's Conservatives now need. The Canadian Conservatives did just that on the eve of the election, only to find that it magnified their problems. This is what happened:

After nine years in power under the leadership of Brian Mulroney, the Canadian Tories were plagued by scandal, buffeted by the failure of two attempts to revise the constitution to assuage Quebec nationalists and devoid of ideas. From winning the largest majority in Canadian history in 1984, their poll rating had dropped so badly the joke was that it would soon be lower than the prime interest rate.

The Liberal opposition was resurgent under a new leader, Jean Chretien, and senior Conservatives - including Mr Mulroney himself - decided a change of leader was the only hope. So with just six months to go before an election had to be called Mr Mulroney resigned and Kim Campbell, fresh, sparky and blonde, swept into office. She lacked experience, but this did not stop her occupying Canada's top political job, the first woman to do so.

Her task was to win the election, and when that came the whole plan fell apart. The voters were not fooled, and the party was brutally punished. To be fair, the explanations are more complex than that and the result has given political scientists plenty to argue about. Ms Campbell was over-confident and ran a bad campaign compared with the more seasoned Mr Chretien. The Conservatives, moreover, were victims to some extent of freakish regional and electoral factors. But the result remains a stark warning to any party looking for quick-fix solutions to unpopularity. The wrath of the voters can be mighty indeed.

Is there life after so spectacular a political death? Last weekend, for a brief moment, Kim Campbell was back on television, but her appearance at the first national convention of the Canadian Conservatives since the wipe-out was some way short of a renaissance. The party is still groping in the political darkness.

As for Ms Campbell, she told reporters she was out of politics for good. She is writing her memoirs and then she plans "to get on with the second half of my life".

Now 48, she is rumoured to be in line for an ambassadorial post. Of her remarkable defeat at the polls she would only say: "I think the people here [at the convention] have kept in mind what the task is, which is to rebuild. I don't think anybody is interested in fighting old battles or reliving history."

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