At first glance, serious allegations of sexual misconduct by its leader surfacing just five months before an election seems like a nightmare scenario for Ontario’s Progressive Conservative Party.
The accusations levelled against Patrick Brown in an explosive report from CTV News on Wednesday night were, after all, serious and stunning enough to force an immediate mass exodus of top staffers from Brown’s office, and then the 39-year-old leader’s own resignation mere hours later.
WATCH: Patrick Brown steps down as Ontario PC leader after accusations of sexual misconduct
Perhaps in an attempt to downplay the challenge her party now faces, PC deputy leader Sylvia Jones called the scandal “a hiccup” on Thursday afternoon, and assured reporters that her team still has a plan for defeating Kathleen Wynne’s Liberals in June.
But as the PCs begin to regroup, experts suggest that the choices they make over the next few days will be most critical in determining whether they end up hobbled, or emerge stronger on June 7.
“This will just demand a very quick pivot,” said University of Waterloo political science Prof. Anna Esselment.
“Patrick Brown wasn’t necessarily wildly popular. In fact, five months out from the election, most Ontarians still didn’t know who he was.”
That “quick pivot” will first and foremost mean a new leader, she said.
That person, whether they come from within the existing caucus or not, should be chosen quickly and “really have no connection – or only a tenuous connection” to Brown.
They and the party as a whole will need to hit the ground running, Esselment noted, emphasizing the values and platform positions of the party itself, and swiftly divorcing the Progressive Conservative brand from Brown’s personal one.
“It’s not difficult to delete his name from a platform and reprint, but maybe this is an opportunity where you have an interim leader that says, ‘you know, our party is not about one man, and our party is not about these allegations… we’ve got good ideas for the province of Ontario,” she said.
With a majority of PC candidates already in place ahead of the June vote, and Premier Wynne’s approval numbers still sagging, political strategist Michele Austin agreed that there’s room to maneuvre.
“Obviously the party’s in shock,” said Austin, a senior advisor with Summa Strategies in Ottawa.
“There are a lot of (PC) candidates that this is the first time they’ve stepped into the political arena. They’ve quit their jobs, they wanted to run really hard with a chance of winning… I mean, nobody prepared them for this, so the party’s going to have to take a moment to recover.”
Once that moment passes, she said, the choice of an interim – or even permanent – leader will definitely be paramount.
WATCH: Have the PC’s lost the election? Deputy leaders call Patrick Brown resignation a ‘hiccup’
Having a woman at the helm during the campaign may prove “critical,” Austin noted.
“When you’re standing on a podium in a debate, which you will be doing with Andrea Horwath and Kathleen Wynne, I think it would be very wise to consider putting a woman up there. Especially since one of the questions that’s going to come at them for the entire length of the campaign is, ‘what is your position on assault, harassment and sexual abuse?'”
Some of the top names being floated by political pundits include women like Brown’s former leadership competitor Christine Elliott, federal MP Lisa Raitt and even PC candidate Caroline Mulroney, daughter of former prime minister Brian Mulroney.
Esselment said a female interim leader could indeed provide the clear distance from Brown that the party sorely needs.
“It’s also a reaffirmation that women are part of the Ontario Progressive Conservative Party, and they believe in it,” she said.
If there’s one key lesson to be learned from the Brown scandal, it’s that there’s inherent risk in making a leader so central to any political campaign, Esselment added.
Even the PC platform had Brown’s face on the cover, with 147 promises that each start with, “Patrick Brown and the Ontario PCs will…”
“To this point, the whole campaign, the whole sort of movement… has been about Patrick Brown himself,” she said.
“It’s a strategy that can work, and Justin Trudeau is an example of that, but it’s really risky… because when this happens, if the party’s been only defined by the leader, you can’t have this empty vessel.”