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When Ontario Liberal Leader Steven Del Duca said he would resign in the wake of last week’s provincial election, he became the latest addition to a large group of Canadian party leaders only to get a kick in the electoral can.
Conservative leaders Andrew Scheer and Erin O’Toole only got one shot. Liberal leaders Stephen Dion and Michael Ignatieff were given only one chance each. Ian Rankin in Nova Scotia and Andrew Wilkinson in BC each had only one chance to win.
Almost all the leaders resigned. But it certainly appears that he was resigning amid internal party pressures to avoid the embarrassment of being kicked out of the party.
Not so for every leader. On the same night that del Duca resigned after an election as leader, Andrea Horvath resigned after four to Ontario’s NDP. Stephen Harper lost his first election before winning the next three. Joe Clark made three strikes to Robert Stanfield before the Confederate Tories took over. The most extreme examples, Wilfred Laurier and Mackenzie King, each led their parties in seven elections, with some losses between victories.
These days, party leaders who lose elections often (but not always) resign. Winning undoubtedly helps longevity, but for losers, is the throttling “one-and-done” model on the rise?
While there is a general lack of patience with leaders these days, it doesn’t make sense to think of it as a one-sided trend, says Western University political scientist Christine de Clercy.
“I think we are in another phase, as we have done in the past, where the expectations of the public and the party around leaders are very rigid. And if the leaders can’t win, they are out,” she said.
The reason, de Clercy says, is to live up to expectations. Leaders who fail to deliver on promises made to the party are left to the side, which is why Del Duca succumbs, she says.
The Liberals moved from seven seats in 2018 to just eight in the most recent Ontario election, and again came third.
“The magnitude of the results last week was not expected,” de Clercy said. “Just to sketch an alternative hypothesis, if the Liberals were confident they won’t get any seats last week and got eight seats, they look like a hero.”
She stresses that the expectations set by the parties are not always “necessarily justified” – so it’s not all about the leader’s performance.
Alex Garland, a political scientist at Memorial University in Newfoundland, agrees that expectations are the main variable that determines whether a party leader faces music after a losing campaign.
But he also says that with their expanded role in politics and being more tied to the party brand, the stakes are now higher for leaders in general.
And with the advent of social media and more political coverage overall, Canadians may simply be susceptible to leaders who then “lose their luster”, he said.
“Political leaders have a shorter shelf life than before,” he said. “People get tired of seeing the same leader all the time.”
They are subject to the simple ups and downs of partisan popularity, or voter fatigue with a certain leader or party, he says.
And, generally speaking, different parties have different expectations. While federal liberal or conservative leaders may be expected to form a government in any given election by their respective supporters, the same may not be true for the New Democrats, leading to some relative stability.
“several of [the NDP’s] The leaders have suffered terrible losses, but they fought a principled campaign. And the membership is expecting it and is happy with it,” de Clercy said. “While in contrast, for liberals and conservatives, it’s about power, it’s about winning.”
Marland states that each party has developed its own unique culture of leadership, with the NDP often happy to be the “moral conscience of parliament”.
Women have more precarious leadership
De Clercy also says that not all leaders receive the same level of charity when it comes to meeting expectations. He says that women are more uncertain in their leadership.
“They don’t always, but often, are more likely to be challenged and go to jail,” she said. “And once it comes to replacing them… things unfold very quickly.”
Many female politicians also face the “glass cliff” phenomenon – the reins are handed over at a particularly vulnerable moment for the party.
Marland says the Conservatives have recently become particularly apologetic towards candidates who have lost. The party will elect a new leader this fall. And whoever it is, their fate will largely depend on who is leading the federal liberals in the next election.
If Justin Trudeau decides not to run, the new Tory leader’s future will be a bit of a wildcard, Garland says.
But if Trudeau once again leads the Liberals, as he has said he will, the stakes are even higher, because 10 years after being out of power, conservatives think he is due for a victory.
“If Trudeau is running the next election … and comes back as prime minister, I think conservatives will be so angry that they have to blame someone, and they will blame whatever leader they are. “