In the first few days of the new parliamentary session, under the close scrutiny of television, Joe Clark underwent a subtle transformation. Most visible was the disappearance of his old, untamed, countrystyle haircut that looked as if he’d just stuck his finger in a socket. In its place, a smooth, styled city cut. That was the result of some very careful image making on the part of the Conservative leader’s aides, though Clark himself tries to play down the change. “I went into a barber shop in Toronto and the barber obviously hadn’t taken a look at which side my hair was parted on,” he says. “I came out with it parted on the other side.” Clark has also been paying extra attention to his dress in the House of Commons (“light colors bleed under cameras”). But the most remarkable change has been in the crispness and confidence of his speeches and exchanges, in which he has often clearly outpointed Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau.
It seemed a long time coming (see box), but Clark was on his way back up. While he had not yet regained the dizzying heights of a year ago, when he led the Liberals by a dozen percentage points in the polls, he could say the worst was behind him. As if to confirm this, the party gave him a ringing endorsement at its national convention in Quebec City this month, despite a lacklustre speech from the leader. Delegates were determined to support Clark no matter what and less than 7% voted against him in the compulsory leadership ballot (19% rejected Trudeau in the last Liberal vote two years ago). Said Clark: “We have put to rest the somewhat tumultuous past of the Conservative Party.”
For Clark, the convention represented a remarkable turnaround. Last summer there was so much grumbling in the parliamentary caucus and the party at large about Clark’s leadership that there was talk of dumping him, even before a general election. That has all changed. “The mood of this convention is a closing of ranks and a joining of forces behind Joe Clark,” said Toronto delegate Alex Geddes, who had previously been among Clark’s critics. There still may not be a lot of outright enthusiasm for Clark inside his own party, but there is at least a growing acceptance of his leadership. “People realize if we’re going to do something about this government they are going to have to get on Clark’s bandwagon,” said Gordon Ward, party president in Calgary South, an area that has been cool to Clark in the past despite his Alberta roots.
Even John Diefenbaker, who criticized Clark as recently as September for “playing around and fighting with 100-ounce boxing gloves” instead of attacking Trudeau head on, changed his tune. Sharing a platform with Clark at a Tory meeting in Regina in late October, Diefenbaker declared: “I think it’s time for the party in every part of the nation to follow Joe Clark along a path of determination and definite support.” Turning to Clark, Diefenbaker unblushingly explained away his previous attack on his leadership. “I went across this country mobilizing members (of the party) behind you so that we might win the next election and save Canada.” The hatchet was buried and the bitter infighting by the
party’s factions, so long a Tory weakness, was at an end, at least for the moment.
It is not hard to identify the chief cause of the Conservatives’ newfound unity: the government. After seeming unbeatable during the summer, Trudeau’s Liberals began to bungle badly in the fall. Nothing seemed to be working for them as crisis piled on top of crisis—the falling dollar, then the Inco layoffs (see page 74), and now the RCMP. Even the so-called national unity issue, the government’s favorite, began to turn sour as Trudeau continued to drag his feet in search of solutions. The promise of competent government, a Liberal trademark, seemed broken. Suddenly Clark and the Conservatives did not look so bad in comparison, and the Liberals were kicking themselves for not calling an election in the early fall, when events seemed to be going their way.
This is not to say that Clark’s improved fortunes stem entirely from government
mistakes. He has made some of the right moves himself, including primarily the hiring of Lowell Murray, former deputy premier of New Brunswick and a veteran pol, as the party’s campaign director. ‘T know how you can terrorize a government,” he says. He has apparently been teaching his leader. Clark’s public statements have become much tougher of late. He called Trudeau “cowardly,” for example, for failing to take Quebec’s language legislation, Bill 101, to Supreme Court, and he deliberately borrowed vocabulary from Watergate (“cover-up, stonewall”) to describe government actions in the RCMP affair.
Clark and the Conservatives also seemed better prepared than the Liberals for the introduction of television in parliament. They got coaching on what to wear and how to face the camera and it showed in the opening days. Clark himself sat through six hours of video taping before parliament opened and watched the results in a Toronto studio. The main purpose of the taping was to produce some clips for the coming election campaign. But it also helped Clark evaluate his performance on TV. “Mr. Clark is now very comfortable in front of a barrage of television cameras,” says Peter Swain, the Toronto advertising executive who arranged the taping.
Besides the imagery of politics, Clark has also worked hard on bringing the Conservatives’ warring factions together. This month’s convention, for example, was very carefully managed to avoid any bloody confrontations. “Individual Conservatives, including members of the caucus, were out making sure that nothing foolish was done,” confides Clark. The policy discussions were so unstructured as to be harmless and there were no votes on specific resolutions, which have a habit of embarrassing parties at election time. Even the race for party president, usually a bitter struggle between the Conservative left and right, anti-Diefenbaker and proDiefenbaker factions, was a tame affair won by Nova Scotia MP Bob Coates. A 20year veteran MP who once wrote a book (The Night Of The Knives) deploring the dumping of Diefenbaker, Coates would almost certainly have been opposed by someone from the party’s left wing at previous conventions. Indeed, Dalton Camp (whom Coates described in his book as an “assassin”) wrote in his newspaper column before the convention: “It is a pity that the Tory party has become so feeble that it cannot find among its membership someone for the future rather than someone out of the past.”
Despite the show of unity, the success of the “new” Joe Clark and the stumbling of the government, the road to victory will not be easy for the Conservatives. They are still behind in the polls and their Achilles’ heel, Quebec, remains as exposed as ever. Barely 15% of the 1,800-odd delegates and alternates at the Quebec City convention came from Quebec. Claude Wagner, Clark’s Quebec lieutenant, was absent due to a serious illness and may not run again in the next election. Roch LaSalle, the party’s only other French-speaking MP, is a poor substitute who could turn out to be more of an embarrassment than an asset to the party because of his leaning toward the Parti Québécois.
To beef up the Quebec presence at the convention, the Conservatives imported Roderique Biron, leader of the Union Nationale, as a guest speaker. He told his hosts, in effect, to adopt a ‘two nations” policy for Quebec. They tried that approach in 1968, with disastrous results, and are not likely to go back to it. Y et they must try something new to improve their standing in Quebec (now down to three seats) dramatically if they are to win a national election. Perhaps with this in mind, Clark cautioned his party on the eve of its convention not to become overconfident because it has had some recent successes. “We start any election behind,” he warned. “We only win if we’re better and we work harder.”
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.