Lord missed his chance

N.B. premier had two chances to lead the federal Tories, but he declined

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The Gazette, Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Bernard Lord might yet discover that life begins at 40 but yesterday, after losing his bid for a third term as New Brunswick premier, he might well have reflected on a road not taken.

Not once, but twice, Lord declined the opportunity to move to federal politics as a candidate for the leadership of the Progressive Conservative Party in 2003 and its successor, the Conservative Party in 2004.

In each instance, he declined a rendezvous with destiny.

The leadership of the PC Party was his for the asking after Joe Clark stepped down at an Edmonton policy convention in the summer of 2002.

Lord, then three years into first term as premier, was invited to give the convention keynote address in Edmonton, and electrified the hall. The invitation was no accident - it was arranged by the federal party's campaign director, John Laschinger, who was also the outside consultant on Lord's 1999 New Brunswick sweep, which saw him become premier at the tender age of 33.

There isn't the slightest doubt that Lord would have won the Toronto leadership convention on the first ballot in 2003. After encouraging the draft-Lord movement for months, Lord finally cut it off and let it be known that his duty lay in New Brunswick. In the event, Peter MacKay, who would not have run against Lord, won the Conservative leadership.

As for Lord, he was unexpectedly reduced to a minority in the New Brunswick election of June 2003. Some voters were angry at Lord over car-insurance premiums, and some resented that he had considered abandoning them after only one term. In any event they gave him the scare of his life.

By then, the essential precondition for a merger on the right was in place - both the PCs and the Canadian Alliance had new leaders who no longer opposed the dictates of simple common sense.

In October 2003, when MacKay and Alliance leader Stephen Harper successfully completed merger talks, the pressure immediately mounted on Lord again.

While he would have faced a very competitive race against Harper, who built a surprisingly strong machine in Ontario, Lord would have been the consensus candidate from the PC side of the house.

The leadership of a united Conservative movement was a much bigger prize - the winner would be leader of the opposition, not the head of the fourth party in the House. Lord seriously considered it, and was assumed ready to make the move when he suddenly shut it down over the Christmas holidays of 2003.

Had Lord run and prevailed over Harper, the question is how he might have fared against Paul Martin's Liberals in the election of June 2004.

Consider: Harper was running ahead of the Liberals until they successfully demonized him in their attack ads. Until then, the Liberals' own seat projection had the Conservatives winning 144 seats, none of them in Quebec.

The Liberals would never have been able to portray Lord as a scary extremist. Moreover, as a francophone, he could have made a significant breakthrough in Quebec, where Harper was shut out in 2004.

A very good case can be made that Lord, had he won the Conservative leadership, would also have won the election in which the voters gave Martin's Liberals a reprieve. Lord might well, at 38, have become the youngest prime minister in Canadian history.

Instead, he stayed in New Brunswick, and called a late summer election nine months before the normal four-year cycle. The outcome reminds us once again that when you call an early election, you better have an issue. And when cabinet ministers start falling, as they did in New Brunswick on Monday night, that's the voters' way of agreeing it's time for a change.

The Liberals and Conservatives tied the popular vote at 47 per cent, and the NDP vote virtually shrunk in half, possibly providing Shawn Graham with his slender majority, 29 Liberal seats to 26 Conservatives.

Lord now has two viable career options. He can go to Toronto, and make a fortune practising law, or he can run federally. In the event of Harper's re-election, he would clearly become the political minister for New Brunswick.

Either way, he should get the heck out of Fredericton.

As for the rest, it's very interesting in the realm of might have been. Long story short, Harper went for it. Lord didn't.

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