It could take a Tory to topple the Tories and lead the Liberals back to power, a new poll suggests.
Toronto Mayor John Tory, a former Progressive Conservative leader who left that party five years ago, would be the front-runner in the undeclared Ontario Liberal leadership race, the Corbett Communications survey found.
While Premier Doug Ford’s Conservatives would win an election held now with 35 per cent support — ahead of the Liberals at 27 per cent, the NDP at 25 per cent, and the Greens at 12 per cent — a Tory candidacy for the Grits could jolt the political landscape.
“He changes the whole dynamic for everybody,” veteran pollster John Corbett said Tuesday.
“We looked at the field (of existing Liberal leadership hopefuls) and … who is leading the province against Ford? It’s John Tory,” said Corbett when asked why the firm tested the mayor’s name.
The poll was conducted before Tory’s broadside against Ford on Monday in a major speech in Scarborough, but it comes against the backdrop of him warning of the effect of Ford’s funding cuts on the city.
Those surveyed were asked “which one of the following potential candidates would you be most likely to support for the Ontario Liberal Party.”
Tory was at 41 per cent, compared to Liberal MPPs Mitzie Hunter and Marie-France Lalonde at 4 per cent apiece and former minister Steven Del Duca and MPP Michael Coteau at 3 per cent each.
Of the remaining respondents, 36 per cent were undecided and 9 per cent preferred “another candidate.”
In a general election scenario, the Liberals led by Tory were at 32 per cent, compared to Ford’s Conservatives tied with Andrea Horwath’s New Democrats at 27 per cent apiece and Mike Schreiner’s Greens at 12 per cent.
But any other Liberal candidate in the survey would appear to help Horwath.
Her New Democrats were at 33 per cent against Ford’s Tories at 31 per cent with 19 per cent for Del Duca’s Liberals, and Schreiner’s Greens at 14 per cent.
Similarly, against Coteau’s Liberals, at 19 per cent, Horwath’s NDP was at 33 per cent to 31 per cent for Ford’s Tories, and 14 per cent for Schreiner’s Greens.
With Hunter as leader, the Liberals were at 18 per cent, Horwath’s New Democrats at 34 per cent, Ford’s Tories at 31 per cent, and Schreiner’s Greens at 14 per cent.
Lalonde’s Grits were also at 18 per cent to 34 per cent for Horwath’s NDP, 32 per cent for Ford’s Tories, and 14 per cent for Schreiner’s Greens.
“Andrea Horwath has established herself as the opposition leader,” said Corbett. “The only place that doesn’t hold up is if John Tory runs. He upsets both fields — in running for the Ontario Liberal leadership and in running for government.”
In a statement, the mayor’s spokesman said he “is focused on leading Toronto — the job that he was elected and re-elected to do.”
“Every ward across Toronto voted for Mayor Tory (last fall) because residents trust him to stand up for Toronto, to get transit and housing built, and to be honest with them,” said Don Peat.
“Mayor Tory believes a strong Toronto helps build a strong Ontario and that a strong province helps Toronto grow. That’s why the mayor is speaking out now about the province’s cuts.”
Tory led the Conservatives to defeat in the 2007 election due largely to his doomed promise to fund faith-based schools. He has not been a member of the PC party since 2014, when he sought municipal office.
In that civic election, which looms large over their current feud, he defeated Ford with 40.3 per cent of the vote to 33.7 per cent.
Tory’s success in city politics has been bolstered by Liberal backers, including his principal secretary, Vince Gasparro, an influential Grit who worked for former prime minister Paul Martin.
Pointing to former federal PC leader Jean Charest, who later became Quebec’s Liberal premier, and former Ontario NDP premier Bob Rae, who became a federal Liberal MP, Corbett said Canadians accept party switchers.
“People look at the mayor of Toronto and they don’t see a Conservative mayor, they see a centrist mayor,” the pollster said.
“He’s more of a consensus leader. He waits to see which way the wind is blowing and then he travels along with it and sets his sails accordingly.”
Ford, in contrast, can be a polarizing figure. Corbett’s poll found 24 per cent approved of the job the premier is doing compared with 66 per cent who disapprove, with 10 per cent who were unsure.
The Liberals are expected to choose a new leader next year. They are currently led on an interim basis by John Fraser, who took over after Kathleen Wynne led the party to defeat last June following almost 15 years in power.
Robert Benzie is the Star’s Queen’s Park bureau chief and a reporter covering Ontario politics. Follow him on Twitter: @robertbenzie