TORONTO – Ontario’s Progressive Conservatives scrambled to get back on track Thursday after allegations of sexual misconduct prompted their leader to step down, but experts said the next few weeks will likely determine whether the party can bounce back in time for the spring election.
The Tory caucus is set to meet Friday to select an interim leader to replace Patrick Brown, with at least one member of the legislature publicly throwing his hat in the ring.
The party’s deputy leaders would not say, however, whether the person they choose would lead them in the scheduled June election or if a leadership race would be held before then, saying only that caucus members would need to have those discussions.
Deputy leader Sylvia Jones told a news conference that the party is moving on and is focused on getting ready for the campaign.
“We have the plan in place to succeed in 2018,” she said. “Was last night a hiccup? Absolutely. But we are going to move forward with it and we are going to make sure that we put in place the processes to ensure that we have a winning team in 2018.”
She called the allegations against Brown “a shock,” and said caucus unanimously supported his decision to step down. It will be up to caucus and the party’s interim leader to decide if Brown can run in the upcoming election, Jones said.
Brown announced he was stepping down in a statement issued early Thursday morning, following a hastily called news conference in which he “categorically” denied what he called “troubling allegations” about his conduct and his character.
The allegations, which have not been independently verified by The Canadian Press, were made by two women who spoke to CTV News.
The broadcaster reported Wednesday that one woman, who is now 29, claimed she was still in high school when Brown allegedly asked her to perform oral sex on him. Another woman, who was a university student working in Brown’s constituency office, alleged the politician sexually assaulted her in his home after an event she helped organize, CTV News reported.
Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne acknowledged the upheaval surrounding Brown’s resignation but said it was too early to know how it would affect the province’s political landscape. The premier, however, said she would not call a snap election.
Wynne would not comment specifically on the allegations levelled against Brown but broadly denounced sexual assault and harassment.
“This is not about politics,” Wynne said. “I think that many of us feel very shaken by what we heard last night … There are obviously lots of political questions that are going to come forward. I honestly feel that right now I’m thinking about this in my role as a mother, as a daughter, as a community leader.”
Brown’s sudden departure means all parties, not just the Progressive Conservatives, will have to rethink their campaign strategies, said Genevieve Tellier, a political science professor at the University of Ottawa.
The Tories face the additional hurdle of having to rebrand themselves after a new leader, and in only a few months, Tellier said. Who they choose — and how quickly they do so — will have a great impact on their chances of forming government, she said.
A lengthy leadership race could further divide the party at a time where it needs to be united, she said. But it may be too much to ask voters to support a leader who might be replaced after the election, she said.
“The ideal situation would be to have, quickly, someone that will be there for the next election and for the next four years,” she said.
“Maybe some voters are willing to have some flexibility because of all the circumstances but up to a point. You want to know who will be in power for the next four years.”
The upheaval could even give the party a boost if they choose a leader with more clout than Brown, who polls showed remained largely unknown to many Ontarians, said Anna Esselment, a political science expert at the University of Waterloo.
“There could be a possibility to seize an opportunity that they didn’t even know they had with this particular episode,” she said.
“I think it’s also a reminder to parties generally that it can be risky when you put all of your emphasis on the leader,” she said, noting Brown’s name and image were plastered all over the party’s materials and platform.
“So it’s an opportunity for someone to come in and say, ‘You know we’re actually not about just one man, we’re not about one leader, we’re not about these allegations, we are a party organization.'”
Asked about how Brown’s resignation would affect her campaign, Ontario NDP Leader Andrea Horwath also said there was more at stake than the upcoming election.
“This is not about me and it’s not about my campaign,” she said. “This is about women coming forward and calling out behaviour that they experienced and I have to say I was pretty disgusted by what I heard in terms of their story.”