Who would have thought that Harry and Meghan would prove to be inspirational to the Conservative leadership race in Canada?
On the very heels of the royal couple’s exit, three prominent Conservatives have also chosen the path less public, standing down from a chance to lead the party, with all the fame, duty and title that goes to the winner.
Even the reasons cited for the opt-outs echoed the saga of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex: Putting family first, a preference for work in the private sector and an acknowledgment that life at the top of a historic institution is not as glamorous or enticing as it once was.
Just as Harry and Meghan’s story shed some light on the downside of the monarchy, the non-leadership choices of Rona Ambrose, Jean Charest and Pierre Poilievre might also force us to take a look at how political leadership in Canada is not exactly a prized occupation at the dawn of the 2020s.
It’s maybe too early to give this year a theme, but the first month seems to have been dominated by stories of aversion to titles and public life.
Immediately after the surprise news emerged Thursday evening that longtime MP Pierre Poilievre was abandoning the Conservative leadership race, I mused aloud on social media about how I’d like to see him in a debate with the other two noncontenders, Ambrose and Charest.
It would definitely be a novelty — three people talking about why they did not want the top political job. It could give us some valuable insights into what’s wrong with political life in Canada these days, and why the sacrifice might not be worth the diminishing rewards.
None of these three is a stranger to the upper tiers of Canadian politics. Charest led the Progressive Conservative party and was premier of Quebec. Ambrose served as interim Conservative leader. Poilievre is a Conservative lifer, first elected to the Commons in 2004.
None of them made the decision lightly. Poilievre had even been ready to launch his leadership campaign this weekend.
But all have talked publicly about how a close, hard look at political life made them realize that the potential struggle might not be worth the reward — or the sacrifice of their time, privacy or even their convictions.
“I knew it would be hard on my family life to do this. But I did not realize how hard,” Poilievre tweeted Thursday in his stand-down declaration.
“I loved my 13 years in public service as an MP, minister and especially as leader of this great party,” Ambrose said in a Facebook post earlier in the week. “But right now, I am focused on making a difference through the private sector.”
Charest, for his part, hinted not so subtly that even the party itself is not the institution it once was — kind of like the monarchy, if you will.
“The Conservative Party of Canada has undergone deep changes since I left in 1998. My positions regarding a number of social issues are based on deep convictions,” Charest said in a written statement. “I have a happy family life as well as a very active practice at the national law firm of McCarthy Tetrault.”
None of the three talked about a desire to be financially self-sustaining, as Harry and Meghan did, but the raw reality is that for two of these three noncontenders, private life is also more lucrative, and far less judgmental.
Drawing a public salary opens a person up to harsh scrutiny, as outgoing Conservative leader Andrew Scheer learned about taking subsidies to send his kids to private school.
Some politicians are so sensitive to this scrutiny now that they never fly in business class. They can now wave to corporate flyers such as Ambrose and Charest at the front of the plane while they make their way to the economy seats in the back.
They will also know that while Ambrose and Charest may be headed to quiet weekends at home with family and friends, most politicians spend their time away from Ottawa attending endless events from morning to midnight. One needs to be an extraordinary kind of extrovert to enjoy the political whirlwind.
By opting out of the leadership race, these three noncontenders are also free to cultivate friendships with people from other parties, too — something frowned upon in the hyperpartisan climate of Canadian politics in 2020.
And of course, the media will be far more friendly. They can choose, as so many ex-politicians do, to be TV commentators, rather than being the subject of the commentary. “The media is a powerful force,” Prince Harry said in a statement intended as a coda to the royal drama of the past few weeks.
Like Harry and Meghan, the three people who chose not to run for the Conservative leadership race this week might experience some occasional pangs of regret over the potential life they have abandoned.
Unlike Harry and Meghan, however, they don’t have to move to Canada — they’re already here. And if they do cross paths at some point with the royal couple, they can all exchange stories of why they found life out of the limelight the preferred option in January 2020.
Susan Delacourt is a columnist for the Toronto Star.