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Will John Cummins fracture Christy Clark's B.C. Liberal coalition?

Former Tory MP John Cummins announces his desire to lead the B.C. Conservative Party at a Vancouver news conference on March 29, 2011.

JOHN LEHMANN/JOHN LEHMANN/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

John Cummins will be waiting for Premier Christy Clark as she returns to duty Monday after a week's vacation.

While Ms. Clark was away, the former Tory MP who has been raring to smack down the B.C. Liberals over such policies as the harmonized sales tax, clinched the leadership of the B.C. Conservatives. The tough critic of fisheries policies faces a vote at a May. 28 leadership convention, but will be the only name on the ballot because no one else entered the race by the deadline, last week, for doing so.

Now the 69-year-old Mr. Cummins is free to work up policy, recruit candidates, and make plans ahead of his expected validation as leader.

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The Conservatives have no members in the legislature, haven't actually governed B.C. (without being part of a coalition) since R.B. Bennett was prime minister - 1933, for the record. They also tend to poll in single digits.

But the Conservatives need not actually win seats to reduce Ms. Clark's run as Premier to months, especially if, as expected, she calls an election this fall - two years ahead of the scheduled 2013 vote.

The convention in B.C. politics is that the centre right party, whether Social Credit or B.C. Liberal, loses to the NDP when a disaffected splinter party of the centre right splits the vote. Mr. Cummins has dismissed the fear, suggesting he can find support among of voters who did not turn up at the polls in 2009 without aiding the NDP. Many are skeptical.

So what now? Ms. Clark has been trying to rebrand the B.C. Liberals, raising the minimum wage, and taking other measures. Now she has to be mindful of the threat presented by Mr. Cummins, who maybe able to excite conservative elements of the B.C. Liberal base, a coalition of federal Liberals and Conservatives. "He has a can-do, feet-on-the-ground stance," says political scientist Norman Ruff.

It's going to be tricky for Ms. Clark, seen by some as affiliated with the federal Liberal wing of the party - a connection she has denied.

Kootenay East MLA Bill Bennett, fired from cabinet and the Liberal caucus for criticisms of Gordon Campbell, has said Ms. Clark is doing a fair job. Then again, he told The Globe and Mail last week he isn't ruling out the idea of joining the B.C. Conservatives.

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About the Author
B.C. reporter

Ian Bailey is a Vancouver-based reporter for The Globe and Mail.  He covers politics and general news. Prior to arriving at The Globe and Mail, he reported from Toronto and St. John’s for The Canadian Press.  He has also covered British Columbia for CP, The National Post and The Province. More

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