Never underestimate Doug Ford.
But don’t overestimate his political staying power, or his verbal firepower.
Yes, Ontario’s premier has a demonstrated talent for beating weak or wounded opponents, as he did in the 2018 Progressive Conservative leadership race, and in the general election that followed.
But put him up against a well-respected rival? Ford comes out a loser.
That’s what happened in the 2014 mayoral race, when John Tory defeated Ford.
When he switched to provincial politics, Ford looked forward to having the last laugh as premier — cutting Tory’s Toronto down to size by meddling in the municipal election and slashing funding. But he’s not laughing now.
A new poll published in Wednesday’s Star shows that in the eyes of the people, Tory still comes out ahead of Ford, our self-styled premier of the people. Not just in Toronto, but across Ontario.
If an election were held now and Tory ran under the embattled Liberal banner, he’d topple Ford.
That’s according to one of those amusing opinion surveys that mean everything and nothing — nothing, because Tory won’t run for premier; everything, because it sends a humiliating signal to Ford that he is eminently beatable by the right opponent.
Just not the usual suspects. Everyone now running to replace Ford as premier — from little-known candidates for the Liberal leadership to the NDP’s Andrea Horwath — falls far short of Tory’s winnability.
Horwath, now the leader of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition, would end up in a statistical tie with Ford. Tory, by contrast, would leave them all behind.
Toronto’s mayor is now Ontario’s unofficial opposition leader.
In a previous life, helming the PCs from 2004-09, Tory held the formal title of Official Opposition Leader. Today, he has emerged as a bulwark against Ford because people once again see in him the dignity and credibility absent from a pugilistic premier.
Bad enough that Ford picks fights with anyone and everyone — from federal Liberals to local NDP councillors and provincial teachers’ unions. Odd that he doesn’t fight hard when the circumstances call for it — as when GM closed its Oshawa operations and the premier promptly acquiesced, leaving it to Unifor to push back and win the concessions announced Wednesday.
But what’s truly jarring is how the premier keeps sparring with two potential allies — not just Tory at Toronto city hall, but Brampton Mayor Patrick Brown. Given that both mayors also served as Ontario PC leader before Ford took the job, his failure to find common ground boggles the mind.
If Ford were serious about supposedly cutting fat in government, as he promised in last year’s election, why not do the heavy lifting in his own provincial bailiwick rather than fob the job off on municipalities? His first budget has been marked by the death of a thousand cuts, not so much downloading responsibilities but off-loading the obligation to find efficiencies.
As much as $1 billion has been cut from health transfers to Toronto over the next decade, more than $1 billion from transit operating costs, and $85 million from child care subsidies, in the expectation that Tory would do Ford’s dirty work for him. When city councillors protested, Queen’s Park hectored them to tough it out.
Hence Tory’s unprecedented counterattack against the premier in a speech earlier this week, lamenting his judgment. Why is Ford spending so much time, energy and money — possibly hundreds of millions of dollars in fees and penalties — to break an ironclad contract with the Beer Store so that he can fulfil a misguided promise to get booze into corner stores, notwithstanding the 450 supermarkets already carrying alcohol under that agreement (alongside the LCBO and Beer Store outlets)?
Oblivious to the optics, Ford opted to escalate the fight by claiming city hall wastes money on its car fleet — forgetting the controversy over how he tried to order a supersized van customized to his own tastes. Ignoring Tory’s years of experience at Queen’s Park, he warned the mayor to avoid “irresponsibly wading into provincial issues he is neither involved in or understands.”
When that didn’t work, Ford brought a surrogate into the fight Wednesday, as Social Services Minister Lisa Macleod fired off a supercilious letter condemning the mayor’s “media availabilities and photo opportunities” and demanding he lobby Ottawa instead: “Could you please update my office on the work the city of Toronto has been doing to pressure the federal government.”
Ford’s rhetoric and MacLeod’s tactics are a reminder that this isn’t Tory’s PC Party anymore. In any case, he gave up his membership when he became mayor and isn’t about to run as a Liberal.
As for the premier and his cabinet allies, they see themselves as combatants in a war they can win against all doubters — those who don’t do as they are told and dare to talk back. That includes the mayor of Toronto, and his counterpart in Brampton, who served the same movement for so long.
Which suggests this disagreement isn’t ideological. It’s personal.
Martin Regg Cohn is a columnist based in Toronto covering Ontario politics. Follow him on Twitter: @reggcohn