The ‘Conservative tradition’ that pointed a finger at the Tory leader in 1980

Prime Minister Joe Clark has his hands full as he is greeted by supporters in London, Ont., Dec. 18, 1979. The Prime Minister addressed a gathering of local P.C. party organizers on the second day of his election campaign tour. (Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press)

While introducing his new deputy leader last week in preparation for the upcoming session of Parliament, Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer said he intends to stay on as leader. 

“Now is not the time for internal divisions or internal party politics,” he said as reporters asked questions after the announcement. “That is an unfortunate part of the Conservative tradition in this country.”

Scheer may well have been alluding to the experience of Progressive Conservative Leader Joe Clark after losing to the Liberals in the 1980 election.

Flora MacDonald, the Tories’ external affairs critic in the House of Commons, gave a TV interview in May 1980 saying the party itself needed a change.

Image overhaul needed

Progressive Conservative leader Joe Clark meets with members of his party in Montebello, Que. in May 1980. 1:53  

“She said the party has to stop giving the impression that it is narrow, repressive and intolerant,” said George McLean, host of CBC’s The National, on May 10, 1980 — less than three months after the party lost an election that saw the Liberals win a majority government.

MacDonald had run against Clark in the 1976 leadership race.

In Montebello, Que., the CBC’s Mike Duffy reported on the party’s efforts to discuss that very topic.

“We’re looking at population trends, at issues, at what people in Canada think of the Conservative Party,” Clark told a small group of reporters seated at a table. 

He said it was up to the party to get more people working with them to “build a future” for the country.

Unlike Scheer’s situation in 2019, the Liberals had won a majority in 1980, giving the PCs a lot of time to plan their next moves before the next election.  

But Clark said he sensed “no serious problem” on the leadership question.

“Instead, there’s a common determination to put some of the past behaviour of the Conservative Party very well behind us,” he said.

Confronting the ‘failure to win’

“Whoever is responsible for what happened in the past, we are responsible together for what is going to happen in the future,” says leader Joe Clark. 2:06  

The following month, about 500 Progressive Conservatives from Ontario met at McMaster University in Hamilton.

George McLean, introducing another Duffy report on June 21, 1980, paraphrased some of Clark’s words to his party.

“The Conservative Party’s defeat in February was due in part to the Tories’ failure to win the support of young people and new Canadians,” said McLean.

But the focus of Duffy’s piece was the “MPs, defeated candidates and their campaign managers” attending the summit to discuss “which direction the party should take in the 1980s.”

Lapel-pin politics

A PC member wears a badge calling for a review of Joe Clark’s leadership. (The National/CBC Archives)

“There are few here who wear buttons demanding a review of the party’s leadership,” said Duffy, as the camera showed two such pins with the word REVIEW and the PC logo on delegates’ lapels.

Duffy said MP John Gamble, of the Ontario riding of York North, was “generally believed to be behind the review committee idea.” 

But when Gamble tried talking to reporters, he was drowned out by “infuriated” nearby Tories chanting and clapping so that his words couldn’t be heard.

More clapping, as well as cheers, could be heard inside the hall when Clark walked in.

When MP John Gamble tried talking to the media, other delegates drowned him out by clapping and chanting “Joe! Joe! Joe!” (The National/CBC Archives)

And it was clear he was planning to remain the party’s leader.

“Whoever was responsible for what happened in the past, we are together responsible for what is going to happen in the future,” he told the delegates.  

What lay ahead for the party was a round of self-reflection. 

“[Clark] told his cheering supporters that without the support of young people, immigrants, and Canada’s ethnic communities, the Tories can’t expect to win power with any regularity,” said Duffy, who was wearing a summery seersucker suit that day.

For the time being, at least, Ontario party members were “willing to put their doubts aside, and give Joe Clark another chance.”

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