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Christy Clark's bind

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The way that the B.C. political scene has reacted to the collapse of public confidence in the provincial Liberal government has posed a painful dilemma for Premier Clark.

Here’s the problem: Clark’s Liberals are really a coalition of Liberals and Conservatives, aimed at keeping the New Democratic Party out of power. Coalition members retain their distinct (and generally hostile) federal partisan affiliations. Clark’s own Liberal party is really an arrangement of convenience, a kind of truce between Liberals and Conservatives on the provincial front.

For the most part, ruling from the Liberal platform consists of carefully managing the internal coalition spectrum, and balancing it against the NDP threat from the centre-left. Liberal premiers shift between relatively centrist and more right-wing positioning depending on the issue, the dynamics at play, and the degree of threat from the Official Opposition. Thus when the NDP was reduced to two members in the Legislature in 2001, below even the threshold for official party status, Premier Campbell was free to range far into right-field, unhindered by any threat of loss of centre support, and indulge in such antics as ripping up collective agreements and conducting a referendum seeking public approval of a narrow, hard-line stance toward First Nations.

But look at the situation facing Christy Clark: not only has her party been overtaken in the polls by the NDP, but the provincial Conservative Party has risen from the dead, and is becoming a serious challenger on her right flank.

In that scenario, she has only one direction to move in: to the right.

The reason is simple: the threat from the NDP on her left flank endangers her hold on government. It could well spell defeat at the polls next year.

On the other hand, the threat from the Conservatives on her right flank -- even though they are polling far below NDP and even Liberal numbers -- is far more dangerous. It threatens the survival not only of her government, but of her party. It represents the potential unraveling of her coalition and its internal disintegration.

Remember what happened to the federal Progressive Conservative Party: they went from the largest Parliamentary majority in Canadian history under Mulroney, to a rump of two MPs, to disintegration and an eventual hostile takeover by the Reform Party aka Canadian Alliance. The right wing of Mulroney’s party peeled off to form the rival Reformers (and meanwhile, the Quebec nationalist wing which had entered the PC tent, led by Bouchard, decamped and formed the rival Bloc Quebecois on that front). The Progressive Conservative base was no longer viable.

The threat Clark faces is comparable -- bleeding support to an alternative farther to the right, an alternative party which, parenthetically, is itself beyond the pale of potential alliance with federal Liberals.

Her only rational move is to the right to try to preserve her party, even if that tends to surrender centre ground to the NDP and potentially seal her government’s electoral fate in the next round.

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