Asked if he's personally frustrated by the prospect of continuing to live an unrewarding life in opposition, Tim Hudak offered a forced laugh. It is, he said, "a tremendous honour" just to serve in Ontario's legislature at all.
Then the Progressive Conservative Leader returned to his talking point of choice the day after an NDP-friendly budget was tabled. His main worry about the prospect of the third party propping up the governing Liberals, he said repeatedly over the phone on Friday, is that the province will be in an even deeper hole by the time he gets to the Premier's office.
While Mr. Hudak wouldn't admit it, that's far from the only reason to be worried about the increasingly likely scenario that Kathleen Wynne's minority government will live to fight another day. Because if they don't get the spring election they've spent so much time clamouring and preparing for, his Tories are at risk of being the equivalent of a sports team that peaks before the playoffs start.
Granted, Hudak-mania is not exactly sweeping the province. But even if polls continue to give troubling indications of the leader's difficulty in making up for a bad impression in his first campaign at the helm, his is nevertheless by far the most election-ready of Ontario's three major parties.
The Tories have the makings of a platform, and then some, in the countless policy papers that Mr. Hudak has released calling for everything from "right-to-work" legislation to a smaller public service to wide-scale privatization. Unlike the Liberals or New Democrats, they have nominated candidates in virtually every riding. For months they've had a campaign office up and running, with campaign manager Ian Robertson working full-time on preparations.
The policies, Mr. Hudak insisted, will hold up because they represent "fundamental restructuring of the way that government operates" rather than "short-term issues of the day" that he accuses his opponents of being overly focused on. Still, there would seem to be some danger of him running out of fresh things to talk about, which could lead to him struggling even more for between-elections coverage than he has to date.
The bigger challenge, though, may be operational. The Tories can't afford to keep that campaign office open indefinitely, so it will shut for at least the summer if the government survives. And Mr. Robertson will have to return to his previous job at Queen's Park as Mr. Hudak's chief of staff, because the contract of the person filling that role on an interim basis – former federal staffer Mike Fraser – is set to expire.
PC insiders concede that they'll probably lose a few of those nominated candidates to impatience or personal considerations. While Mr. Hudak maintains that his party is "determined and focused and energized," it will also become more challenging for him to keep his somewhat fractious caucus fully on board the longer they're stuck in neutral.
Meanwhile, with every day that passes the other parties will have more opportunity to narrow the gap in preparedness. That applies in particular to the Liberals, who have been in some degree of upheaval since changing leaders for the first time in more than 16 years this winter, and would benefit greatly from having the summer to get their organization in order.
Essentially powerless to deny them that opportunity, Mr. Hudak has displayed a hint of that frustration he claims not to have. His over-the-top charge in recent days that the mess around the cancellation of power plants is a case of "corruption" seems intended to shame the NDP out of keeping the government alive, but with all the budget's concessions to that party it's unlikely to be enough.
In the interview, Mr. Hudak tried to strike a philosophical tone. "That's the nature of the beast when it comes to minority governments," he said of the uncertainty around when his second and likely final chance at the premier's office will come.
The Tories, though, clearly bet on the government falling this spring, which would have been very likely if Dalton McGuinty had still been premier. No doubt, they were better off to risk being ready too early than too late. But they may soon wish they'd paced themselves a little more.