Coups and coronations at the hands of caucus

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If members choose the leader in the first place, why don’t they do the firing?

By Sheila Copps
First published in The Hill Times on October 24, 2022.

OTTAWA—What do British Tories and British Columbian New Democrats have in common?

They both moved with dispatch last week to get rid of leaders or potential leaders of their respective parties.

In the case of the British prime minister, Liz Truss’s resignation—after just six weeks in office—marks the end of a tumultuous term during which a massively unpopular mini-budget saw the party’s numbers plummet.

The party elected the leader but, in the end, it was a loss of caucus confidence that cost her the job.

Even after sacking the finance minister and rescinding the millions of pounds in tax cuts, Truss was unable to right her sinking ship. One vitriolic British newspaper headline characterized the Tory governance as a clown car.

Truss will suffer the fate of having the shortest prime ministerial tenure in British history. The next leader will be chosen by the party, but given the capacity to dump a leader after six weeks, it must be hard for members to believe their participation really counts.

Another leadership will not be facing the New Democrats in British Columbia because, as a result of an internal report, the party has chosen a coronation.

In either case, the leader is much less dependent on party support and much more dependent on caucus support.

Is that necessarily a good thing?

In the British system there is absolutely no room for error. If an unpopular move is made by the prime minister, he or she has no time to rebuild support and confidence.

To use a Canadian example, when the Liberals came to power in 1993, the country was deemed a financial basket case by certain financial institutions.

There was no choice but to cut, and cut deeply. The government laid off thousands of employees, and cut budgets across the board by between 15 and 25 per cent.

The only budget that then-prime minister Jean Chrétien refused to cut was spending for Indigenous services. But that financing normally increases with a hike in population, so even a standstill amounts to the equivalent of a cut.

The reduction process took a year as every minister had to present their budget cut proposals to a cabinet committee. I sat on one that was nicknamed “the Star Chamber.”

Some ministers could not agree on what the cuts should be. For example, when the department of foreign affairs recommended meeting its target by ending its funding of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, the minister of finance vetoed that move. The foreign minister was sent back to the drawing board.

During this period, there was a fair bit of internal grumbling about the shape of the cuts, and it was particularly difficult for Ottawa-area members of Parliament to explain the job reductions to their constituents.

How easy it could have been to organize a group within caucus to dump the leader, and end the cost-cutting exercise before it even began.

The Brits are facing a fifth Conservative leadership in six years.

In British Columbia’s case, current Premier John Horgan enjoyed longevity.

But what would have been a party election for leader has been replaced by a coronation, since the elections committee has disallowed the candidacy of the only other opponent.

The decision to refuse the candidacy of Anjali Appadurai was based on an internal report which found that, “Ms. Appadurai engaged in serious improper conduct by co-ordinating with third parties” to recruit new members.
Anjali Appadurai was disqualified from the NDP leadership race on Oct. 20—the same day that Liz Truss stepped down as British prime minister. Photograph courtesy of Twitter

The candidate vigorously denied the claims, suggesting instead that the party introduced a mid-campaign interpretation of the membership rules which was applied retroactively.

Appadurai, an environmentalist, had little caucus support, but was said to have sold many more memberships than her leadership rival and former Attorney General David Eby.

Eby automatically becomes the premier as a result of the coronation. When Eby announced his candidacy last summer, he had the support of 48 colleagues.

That support was likely what caused several other caucus colleagues to stay out of the race.

A coronation may be the simplest route forward for the party, but it may not enhance New Democrat chances with the general public.

Leadership campaigns provide an opportunity to recruit new members. Many stay, even after the race is over. Appadurai supporters, who joined the party for the race, are already leaving in despair.

The British decision to dump a leader after six weeks, or the B.C. NDP move to dump a candidate, may both cause members of each respective party to quit.

If members choose the leader in the first place, why don’t they do the firing?

Sheila Copps is a former Jean Chrétien-era cabinet minister and a former deputy prime minister. Follow her on Twitter at @Sheila_Copps.