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The Premier's Days Are Numbered

Gordon Campbell is on his way out of office, and likely soon after multiple disasters.

Bill Tieleman 2 Nov 2010TheTyee.ca

Bill Tieleman is a regular Tyee contributor who writes a column on B.C. politics every Tuesday in 24 Hours newspaper. E-mail him at weststar@telus.net or visit his blog.

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Starting to look like Margaret Thatcher.

"It's a funny old world that here I have won a majority but feel I have to go."
-- British Conservative prime minister Margaret Thatcher, 1990

Will Premier Gordon Campbell suffer the same fate as Margaret Thatcher -- a dominant political leader who was forced out of office by her party despite winning a third majority government?

On Sunday Global TV reported that an emergency caucus meeting has been called this week by BC Liberal MLA and whip John van Dongen, and Public Eye Online has said it will happen Thursday in Vancouver, leadership revolt talk grows stronger daily.

The reasons are plentiful: Campbell's disastrous television address last week defending the Harmonized Sales Tax actually worsened his position according to an Ipsos Reid poll.

It found only 11 per cent of viewers had a better opinion of the premier after seeing it while 43 per cent said their opinion had worsened and 45 per cent said it had no real impact.

Perhaps British Columbians were unimpressed with Campbell's surprise announcement of a 15 per cent income tax cut because B.C. still has a deficit and the premier himself defends the HST because the province needed a one-time $1.6 billion grant from Ottawa due to our poor financial situation.

So where does he suddenly come up with the $600 million a year needed for the income tax cut? And how does it make up for the HST when that tax will take an additional $2 billion a year out of consumers' pockets and give it to big business?

Then there's the sudden guilty plea bargain deal with former BC Liberal aides David Basi and Bob Virk in the BC Rail corruption trial that saw the government pay their $6 million legal fees without any attempt to seize their property or future wages.

That from a government which chases down welfare recipients to the ends of the earth if they fail to declare $100 in earned income.

And a cabinet shuffle that angered at least one minister enough to publicly complain about Campbell's failure to consult his team.

Margaret Thatcher all over again?

It all sounds reminiscent of Thatcher -- the "Iron Lady" of British politics -- who won a decisive election victory in 1987 but by 1990 trailed the opposition Labour Party by 14 per cent, while her personal approval rating of 40 per cent was the second lowest of any post-war prime minister.

Thatcher was challenged by former cabinet minister Michael Heseltine for the Conservative Party leadership, with several polls showing he would regain the lead over Labour as prime minister.

After initially fighting off Heseltine's attack, Thatcher announced she would resign as soon as a new leader was chosen, citing her goal of restoring party unity and improving the prospects of the Conservatives winning the next election.

Campbell won his third term in 2009 with a comfortable majority, but today the BC Liberal Party is behind the opposition New Democrats by between nine per cent and as much as 25 per cent, while the premier's personal approval rating has dropped to just nine per cent compared to 50 per cent in March 2009, before the May election and the surprise introduction of the hated Harmonized Sales Tax in July.

Campbell has been challenged by his former energy minister Blair Lekstrom, who publicly called for the premier to resign after quitting both cabinet and caucus in June over his constituents' opposition to the HST.

"You hope that he knows when the time has come. I think, without question, most people would agree that the time has come to have a new premier," Lekstrom said in September.

Gordon Campbell, meet Margaret Thatcher.

And to make the picture of disharmony in BC Liberal ranks even worse, last week Bill Bennett, Campbell's energy minister, called the Vancouver Sun's Jonathan Fowlie to publicly criticize the premier's cabinet shuffle and reorganization of resource ministries without consulting the BC Liberal caucus.

"We need to think about doing things differently. We are not well thought of by the general public. Wouldn't that suggest to you that perhaps it might be time to try a different approach?" Bennett said in an unprecedented complaint prompted by Campbell removing mining from his portfolio.

"It's the difference between doing things to people and with people, and I personally believe it's just smarter to do things with people," Bennett said, drawing the obvious conclusion that the Kootenay East MLA is smarter than the premier.

Rennie's blast

Then fellow cabinet minister and constant Campbell booster Kevin Krueger struck back in the media at Bennett, calling him "petulant" and "irritating."

"Bill has behaved in a typical Bill way, and I don't think anybody appreciates it, because he's more petulant about -- he wanted more power personally than he has," Kevin Krueger told Kamloops radio station CHNL.

"This is not the first outburst in Bill Bennett, we all know that. It's one the premier has obviously decided he can live with, but it's irritating, because it deflects energy from the things that we're doing together," the social development minister said.

Campbell obviously decided it was better to have Bennett inside the tent than out and quickly announced he would stay as energy minister despite the outburst.

Beyond the friendly confines of the BC Liberal caucus, things aren't any better.

The province's top condominium marketer Bob Rennie, a past supporter of Campbell and his party, blasted the premier once again last week over the HST.

"He's the shittiest salesman in the country," Rennie bluntly told developers at a Kelowna meeting. "He's done a horrible job of selling the public on the HST. We're in shit and he's hurting the economy."

"He needed to say we have some heavy lifting to do. We don't want to be Greece," Rennie said, referring to that country's economic crisis.

All in all, a terrible week for a premier who had hoped to put questions about his continued leadership to an end and turn the page on the HST.

Dragging down the party

Instead Campbell only worsened his position, and now it appears that the BC Liberals' dire predicament may have emboldened at least some MLAs fed up with the premier's prima donna approach to confront him.

The similarities with the imperious Thatcher are again striking.

Former Conservative cabinet minister Sir Norman Fowler said in 1990 that Thatcher had been privately told she was dragging the party down to likely defeat.

"A whole range of cabinet ministers said, 'Look, we don't think you're going to win, and it would be better if you didn't run,'" Fowler said.

Eventually that pressure got to the prime minister -- will a similar message get to Campbell?

One message could come through the results of a BC Liberal membership vote on Campbell's leadership that will be announced at the party's convention in Penticton Nov. 19-20. The less than secret balloting took place earlier across the province but the results won't be released until then.

Should Campbell's numbers be embarrassing low, he could announce his departure as leader at the convention to avoid the results being made public.

But lest the NDP get too cocky about Campbell's dire predicament, they should remember the reaction of then-British Labour Party opposition leader Neil Kinnock to Margaret Thatcher's sudden fall.

News of Thatcher's resignation was "good, very, very good indeed" Kinnock said, calling on the Conservatives to immediately call an election -- one that Labour would have won handily based on polling.

"How can anyone have confidence in a government with cabinet ministers who in the last week have been privately telling the press that the prime minister is finished and then minutes later supporting her position in the television studios or going off to a private meeting in order to contrive the coup against the prime minister?" Kinnock asked at the time.

But Kinnock's dreams of unpacking at Number 10 Downing Street never materialized.

Quit to save the Libs?

Thatcher's resignation paved the way for John Major to defeat Heseltine and other contenders to become prime minister and then lead the party to another majority election victory over Kinnock in 1992.

Will Gordon Campbell read the political history lesson and try to save his party from electoral Armageddon, or will the stubborn premier force rebels to push him from office?

The next few weeks may tell that tale.  [Tyee]

Read more: Politics, Elections

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