It’s not easy being the Leader of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition.
By definition, it’s not a job anyone really seeks out, or hopes to hold onto for very long.
Except for the leaders of the Bloc Québécois (which formed the official opposition for a few years back in the ‘90s), every single person who has ever held the position – since 1867 – has coveted the job of the guy who sits two swords’ lengths across the House of Commons.
Unfortunately, when you are the leader of the official opposition, it’s hard to maintain any kind of prime ministerial bearing. The job description involves quite a lot of… opposing. You are required to stand in public daily to complain about, criticize, berate and even hector the government of the day.
It doesn’t leave much opportunity to work on burnishing a statesmanlike image.
It’s very challenging, for instance, when an opposition leader takes the helm of a party that is used to being in power, but has been divided for years by internal power struggles.
Maybe you can think of a recent example.
That challenge is compounded if… say… that leader happens to be from Quebec and is viewed with suspicion… contempt even… by a big chunk of party members from his own native province. If those Quebec party members think you have a tin ear for the concerns of the province, it won’t be long before they try to dump you as party leader.
And the task of holding on to the job of leader becomes especially difficult when someone wins the title following a closely fought, often bitter, leadership race.
In such a case, the runner-up’s supporters may not accept their favored candidate’s loss, may continue for months afterward to undermine the party leader behind his back, may ceaselessly complain to the press about the leader’s unsuitability for the job, and may plot to overthrow and replace him, even on the eve of a possible federal election.
I am not just giving a theoretical example here, of course. In fact, I am talking about the experience of a specific federal leader of the official opposition.
Sorry… did you think I was talking about someone else?
For all the reasons listed above, Chrétien’s three years as Leader of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition, beginning in 1990, frequently flirted with disaster and total Liberal Party meltdown. He bumbled through one crisis after another and, as time went on, many Liberals began to publicly complain about his abilities, called him “Yesterday’s Man”, and – of course – continued to try to replace him with Paul Martin.
Chrétien’s inept tenure as official opposition leader is not as well remembered as it might have been had he not gone on to win three consecutive majority governments.
But of course, a more recent example of a troubled, beleaguered opposition leader does easily spring to mind. You know who I mean:
• A politician whose victory as leader was seen by some party members as a sad compromise, when more charismatic and popular candidates either refused to run, or stumbled during the leadership race.
• A leader whose party languished in the polls following his victory, and proceeded to do quite poorly in a number of subsequent by-elections.
• An opposition leader whose political obituary was drafted by pundits mere weeks into the job.
Of course I am describing…
… Stephen Harper.
Sorry again? You thought it was someone else?
Well, Harper actually served as leader of the official opposition twice, for two different parties: The Canadian Alliance and the Conservative Party of Canada. And in neither case did he fail to disappoint.
In fact, he even blew a general election that was his to win, in 2004, due in large part to some bumbling mistakes and misspeaks on the campaign trail.
Two years later, he was the Prime Minister of Canada.
My not-unsubtle point:
When you hear commentary or read articles about the current Leader of the Opposition, Stéphane Dion, that describe his tenure as a disaster and predict his coming political doom, take them with a grain of historical salt.
Even the most hopeless of opposition leaders can go on to win elections and skillfully hold on to power.
Take, for instance, Stockwell Day.
Wait… that’s a bad example…