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Campbell's stunning resignation leaves fate of party, HST up in the air

A caucus rebellion among B.C. Liberals has pressured Premier Gordon Campbell to quit abruptly, leaving his party in disarray and casting even more doubt on the future of his controversial harmonized sales tax.

Mr. Campbell, Canada's longest serving premier, with a decade in office, was riding high in the reflected glow of the Olympic Games just eight months ago. But he has suffered a breathtaking collapse in support since, as a popular uprising over the HST sent his ratings to single digits, and put his party far behind the opposition New Democrats.

The Premier made a last-ditch effort to reverse his fortunes last week with a rare televised address and a pledge of a major income tax cut. But it wasn't enough: according to several Liberal sources, party members had begun a plot to force him out of office.

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A senior member of the B.C. Liberal party said caucus members were preparing to confront the Premier over the party's decaying political position. "I know there was a revolt brewing," the Liberal said.

Another B.C. Liberal source said the Premier was threatened with a "power play" that aimed at pushing him out if he did not move on his own accord by January.

Mr. Campbell's resignation just 17 months into his four-year term - coupled with B.C.'s fixed election dates - leaves the province in the extraordinary position of having an unelected premier for two years or more.

Last week, the Premier gave every indication he was digging in despite his rock-bottom popularity.

In the past seven days, he restructured his government, shuffled his cabinet and top advisers, and announced a major personal income tax cut in a rare televised address.

But with the polls showing even that had failed to move the voting public, Mr. Campbell stunned his cabinet colleagues at a Wednesday morning meeting with his decision.

The timing allows him to sidestep what would have been a fractious meeting with his MLAs on Thursday, the last chance to prepare for a party convention later this month at which Mr. Campbell's leadership would be tested in a secret ballot. By laying down the terms of a leadership contest now, Mr. Campbell gives the next leader more than two years to reposition the party and several months to decide how to handle a binding referendum on the HST that Mr. Campbell promised to hold in September, 2011.

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Mr. Campbell was the first premier in B.C. in decades to survive more than a single term. But provincial politics has been dominated in recent months by the harmonization of the provincial sales tax with the federal goods and services tax and the unprecedented success of the Fight HST campaign.

He told a news conference in Vancouver that his decision was based on the realization that his own unpopularity over the HST was preventing his government from moving forward on anything else in its economic agenda.

"When public debate becomes focused on one person, instead of what is in the best interest of British Columbians, we have lost sight about what is important," Mr. Campbell told a news conference in Vancouver. "When that happens, it's time for a change."

Mr. Campbell had been hearing that message for weeks from members of his own cabinet and caucus. In recent days, prominent allies within the party relayed it as well, sources said.

Just eight months ago, Mr. Campbell seemed to be riding out the unhappiness over the HST, with the Winter Olympics bolstering his popularity. But in the spring, as the anti-HST movement picked up momentum, his party's support - and even more, his personal approval ratings - were in freefall. A provincewide petition received certification in August and triggered a 2011 non-binding plebiscite on the future of the unloved tax. Mr. Campbell, seeking to defuse anti-HST anger, promised last month to abide by that vote. But the petition backers continued to threaten his MLAs with recall under a B.C. law that allows voters to fire their MLAs.

Blair Lekstrom, who quit Mr. Campbell's cabinet in the summer to protest against the HST, said the Premier should have quit after the Olympics. He wouldn't say yet if he intends to run for the leadership, but he said the contest will be dominated by the HST. "Do we pull the pin and do what the vast majority of British Columbians are asking, that is, cancel it?"

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Bill Bennett, the energy minister, who last week publicly criticized Mr. Campbell's leadership, said the Premier's departure will give his party a chance to survive the next election. "This will prove to be just another one of his brilliant political decisions because it gives us a chance to renew ourselves . . . and not allow the NDP to be elected in 2013."

With a report from Rod Mickleburgh

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About the Authors
B.C. politics reporter

Based in the press gallery of the B.C. Legislature in Victoria, Justine has followed the ups and downs of B.C. premiers since 1988. She has also worked as a business reporter and on Parliament Hill covering national politics. More

National correspondent

Based in Vancouver, Wendy Stueck has covered technology and business and now reports on British Columbia issues including natural resources, aboriginal issues and urban affairs. More

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