All eyes on Ford: Strategists weigh in on premier’s potential role in expected federal vote

By Alan S. Hale August 12, 2021

With a federal election imminent, a quartet of political strategists and insiders say Premier Doug Ford could become a campaign wild card — especially as thorny issues surrounding COVID-19 vaccines heat up.

Opinions vary on Ford’s potential impact, including which federal players hope to benefit by bringing him into the fray.

During the 2019 election, the Conservative Party under Andrew Scheer shunned Ford while the premier suffered from low approval ratings of around 35 per cent after a tough first year in office. Twenty months later, with his early pandemic popularity boost faded, Angus Reid put Ford right back at 35 per cent approval in June.

Those figures could prompt current Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole to consider benching Ford again.

“It all depends on what the Conservative Party wants him to do, but I expect that [Ford] will not be campaigning actively,” said Traxxion Stratégies president Karl Bélanger.

Last summer, Ford told reporters he wouldn’t join O’Toole on the hustings, saying he was too “swamped” running the province’s Covid response. But campaigns can change things, another insider noted.

Scott Reid, political analyst and principal at Feschuk.Reid, thinks Ford may play the “happy warrior” for his federal counterpart, but only so far as it benefits him in Ontario.

“If, as an example, vaccine passports become an electoral hot potato in the federal campaign, Ford will hate that because he has to know he’s on the wrong side of science and public opinion,” Reid told Queen’s Park Today in an email. “If supporting O’Toole intensifies that vulnerability, Ford will find a lot of reasons to go fishing.”

But other strategists say Ford may be willing to let O’Toole twist in the wind.

Aurora Strategy Group CEO Marcel Wieder suggested it may be in Ford’s interest to see O’Toole crash and burn. For one thing, it would open up the door for him to make a run for the federal party leadership. It may also be to his advantage to have Justin Trudeau remain his foil in Ottawa.

“Historically, it benefits Progressive Conservatives provincially when there is a Liberal federal government, and not so well when there is a federal Conservative government,” said Wieder.

Does O’Toole even want Ford’s help?
Strategists told Queen’s Park Today O’Toole would enjoy making use of the Ford Nation political machine to shore up support for Tory ridings within the GTA, especially those poised to be tight battles.

Maxime Bernier and the People’s Party will likely have candidates in every riding across the country at this point, definitely in Ontario. They’re definitely not going to win any seats, but if they’re pulling five per cent away from the Conservatives, that means seats like Oshawa, and Aurora—Oak Ridges—Richmond Hill and other places in the 905 where they have strength, all of a sudden, come into question,” noted Bluesky Strategy Group consultant Cam Holmstrom.

However, O’Toole — like Scheer — may feel the need to distance himself from Ford, especially while he tries to walk a fine line on issues such as mandatory vaccines, a federal vaccine passport system and other hot-button issues for some conservative voters, experts say.

The Tories may also realize Ford’s help will not be what wins them the election, suggested Holmstrom. For the first time in decades, the strategist predicted, the GTA will not be as crucial to the outcome of the election because the Liberals are in such a strong position in the region and the Conservatives too far behind.

“It’s going to be decided in Quebec, in B.C., in Edmonton and Calgary,” he said. “The GTA has been the centre of the political universe in this country for so long, but not in this campaign.”

Wieder suggested if Ford had planned to go all-out to support the federal conservatives, there would be signs of it already. But that hasn’t been the case.

“I can recall elections when there was a Liberal government in Queen’s Park, Liberal staffers would take ‘holidays’ to go work on the federal campaign. I had expected that Progressive Conservative staffers would do the same thing, but I haven’t seen any evidence of that yet,” he said.

Federal parties could goad Ford into lashing out or paint him as a ‘bogeyman’
The strategists believe the Liberals want to use Ford to their advantage during the campaign — something that could play out in two ways.

Ford may not be as willing to sit on the sidelines again, which is why Holmstrom thinks the Grits will do what they can to provoke him into lashing out, or taking unpopular positions that cause headaches for O’Toole.

“We’ve already seen them do it in Alberta with their back-and-forths with the health minister there and Jason Kenney,” he said, referencing a recent letter federal Health Minister Patty Hajdu sent leadership in the Prairie province, which called into question Alberta’s latest Covid response.

However, Bélanger argued the federal Liberals are “still running against Stephen Harper” and are keen to make Ford and other conservative premiers into “bogeymen.”

“Doug Ford’s particular style is a big symbol for the Liberals, and for New Democrats, about what goes wrong when Conservatives get power,” he said.

Insiders noted Trudeau has already succeeded in isolating conservative premiers by signing agreements with seven provinces to provide $10-per-day daycare, as Tory leaders like Ford, Kenney and Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe hold out.

“It will be so easy to go to those provinces and say ‘I want to bring you child care, but your bozo premier doesn’t want to get on board,’” said Holmstrom.

The Liberals may also attempt to take advantage of the strong working relationship the premier has developed with Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland.

“I wouldn’t be surprised to see some ads by the Liberal Party about that,” said Wieder.

For his part, Ford has stayed cozy with the federal Grits as of late, laying off his border attacks and frequently sending his ministers to their pre-election campaign funding announcements — and even attending them himself.

“I consider Chrystia a really good friend,” Ford said when he joined Freeland in Scarborough last month to announce cash for a Tamil community centre. “We’ve spent a lot of time working together during the pandemic. I’m just so grateful for our friendship.”