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Why Jim Prentice won't be next Tory leader

Jim Prentice didn't die yesterday afternoon, right? We don't have to say nice things about him whether we believe them to be true, or not? No? We are allowed to be honest about Jim Prentice's political "legacy" and future prospects? Then what is with the coverage of his departure - we are talking about the same Jim Prentice?

Let me put it as simply as possible: While crazy things can and often do happen during political leadership races, Jim Prentice will not be the next leader of the Conservative Party of Canada. Alberta Progressive Conservative Party? Maybe, but the federal party? It's not going to happen.

There's a very simple reason for this: math.

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I am always amazed how many pundits approach leadership races as if the "air war" is the most important deciding factor. "Oh, Jim Prentice was such a competent minister," "trusted by Harper to act as Chief Operating Officer," "he sure knows his brief" and my favourite, "he's such a nice, decent, impressive guy." Wonderful. And this matters in a leadership race because? (As a total tangent, I don't understand why Prentice is considered a success as a minister. Name me one accomplishment he had as minister of Industry? How about a second one? Bernier was a better Industry minister than Prentice and neither were exactly CD Howe or John Manley, for that matter, in terms of changing the country. How about environment? His excuse would be, "Oh, but Stephen Harper wouldn't let me do anything." That may be true but it is an excuse, not a legacy. And do you really want to be remembered as the COO of this government? I took that powerful agenda and drove it home day after day? Really? End of rant because none of this has anything to with why he won't be leader.)

Leadership races are almost always ground wars. Getting existing members onside, organizing riding by riding, signing up new members, getting them to vote for your candidate, securing second ballot support.

So, you say, why can't Jim Prentice win a ground war? The reason is the Conservative Party of Canada is unbelievably divided as a party between Reformers/Alliance supporters and Progressive Conservatives/Red Tories. Stephen Harper holds the two sides together with a combination of fear, desire to win and the discipline that power brings but by definition, once the party enters into a leadership race, the divisions come to the fore. People trying to stir up trouble still try to argue that there is a Chrétien versus Martin divide in the Liberal Party. It obviously once it existed but in 2010, it's dead, dead, dead. Ancient history with 99.9 per cent of Liberal Party members. The Conservative Party divide is further under the surface but very real.

Jim Prentice is clearly on the PC/Red Tory side of the party. When the Alliance and the PC's merged, the Alliance had roughly four times as many members as the Progressive Conservatives did. That margin has likely grown, not shrunk since then. In a one-member, one-vote, weighted by riding preferential ballot system - which is what the CPC uses to choose leaders - it is almost impossible to imagine a Red Tory winning their leadership race unless there are some bizarre splits on the right wing of the party.

Even if Prentice had every single old PCer onside (something that is almost certainly not the case), he would still only have what, 20 per cent support. That's not terrible - a very solid foundation to build upon but that's the rub. In order to win, he needs significant grass-roots support from Reformers and I don't see that happening. He isn't one of theirs.

Most of the Conservative Party's organizers and money - two kind of important things that help drive successful leadership races - are also found on the right of the party. Hanging out on Bay Street, under the current rules, is of limited use even on the money front, never mind building an organization.

But of course, political parties aren't religious orders. Just because you were once an Alliance member, doesn't mean you can't be convinced to support a Red Tory in a future race. True, no doubt. These things are never static, frozen in time things. My gut, however, is after Stephen Harper's "incremental conservatism" (that's me using code for "selling out everything you once believed in to desperately maintain a grasp on power), the party's historic right wing (ie, more than 80 per cent of the party membership) will be hungering for a true-blue ideological Conservative, not some wishy-washy, compromise-is-necessary Red Tory.

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This leaves very little room for a Jim Prentice or a Peter McKay but is very good news for Jason Kenney (the most powerful Conservative in the country not named Stephen Harper) or Maxime Bernier.

My gut is Jim Prentice knows that he can't win the leadership of the CPC and he will now be the Conservative Party's Frank McKenna. He will always be a rumoured candidate for the leadership but given how good his professional life is about to become, we will never see his name on a ballot ever again.

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