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Patrick Brown and priorities: Why the PC Party leader couldn’t last

Paul Wells: There is a right to a day in court—but not to the leadership of a political party and a caucus that will not have you
TORONTO, ON - JANUARY 24: PC Leader Patrick Brown heads toward the PC Caucus room for the late night press conference. The Ontario Progressive Party held a late night press conference to discus possible issues around Leader Patrick Brown. Toronto Star/Rick Madonik (Rick Madonik/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

UPDATE (1:45 AM ET): Patrick Brown has announced he will resign as leader of the Ontario PC Party, but will stay on as an MPP.

I know I’m paid to game out the electoral repercussions of public events, but it is not easy to generate much enthusiasm for the task in the wake of explosive allegations of sexual assault by Ontario Progressive Conservative leader Patrick Brown.

The province’s election, scheduled for June 7 under a fixed election-date law, will sort itself out, and suddenly seems quite distant anyway. What is much closer is the claims themselves, unearthed by CTV reporters Rachel Aiello and Glen McGregor and backed in one case by an extensive and contemporaneous social-media record. The stories told by the reporters’ two sources are far worse than stale anecdotes about an after-hours scoundrel. Rather, they suggest the systematic use of alcohol to deny meaningful consent to very young women, one of whom depended on Brown for career advancement.

These accounts have not been independently verified. Brown has denied them and said he will seek legal recourse against his accusers. That’s his right. I know Andrea Horwath, the province’s NDP leader, is the furthest thing from an impartial judge, but I think she drew a useful distinction between the right to a day in court and the right to lead a political party, come what may: only the first of those rights actually exists. Brown “deserves his day in court,” Horwath said in a news release, “but no person can lead a political party in this province with allegations like these hanging over his head.”

Among those who seem to agree are most of the people who were, until Wednesday night, Brown’s closest political advisors, including two I know personally and take to be among the most thoughtful members of their party, deputy campaign chair Dan Robertson and chief of staff Alykhan Velshi. They quit rather than support their leader. Given the success they’ve had bringing Brown close to a likely electoral victory, it must have been a terribly difficult day. But not a hard decision: Robertson and Velshi would certainly have helped Brown impose a swift exit on any member of the PC caucus who faced similar accusations, and due process take the hindmost.

READ MORE: Patrick Brown denies allegations: Transcript

Armchair political theorists sometimes lament the fact that Canadian political parties lack a formal mechanism for replacing their leaders through a simple vote of their parliamentary caucus. Caucuses used to pick and depose leaders just like that, on short notice and with no appeal to the broader party membership. Australian political party caucuses sometimes launch such “spills” against their leaders, to the delighted envy of Canadian process wonks.

On Wednesday night, observers were quick to note there is no such mechanism, either formal or traditional, in the Ontario PC constitution for deposing a leader who doesn’t want to go. I believe we’ll soon be reminded no formal mechanism is needed. Politics is the art of the possible: leading a caucus that will not have you is not possible.

Brown cannot last as leader. Who will replace him? I don’t know. Will a new leader be better for the PCs’ fortunes than he would have been? We’ll find out. It’s not, in the first instance, what matters. What matters is consent, allegedly denied to two women, now irrevocably withdrawn from one politician.