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LONDON DISPATCH: Troubling populism leads to win for Brexit

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LONDON — The irony was lost on everyone attending the Brexit party last night at London’s Carlton Club, billed as the city’s “leading Conservative Club.” After cocktails in the Thatcher Drawing Room and a sumptuous dinner in the Churchill Room, dozens of nattily clad members and guests squeezed into the Morning Room on the first floor to watch the results roll in on television.

The Carlton Club wasn’t always in its current location. The original club was destroyed by German bombers in the Blitz in 1940. In 1990, the Irish Republican Army bombed the current spot, injuring 20, one of whom was a British Lord who died as a result some months later.

Yet there we were, a mix of Remain and Leave supporters, together witnessing the possible — some might say probable — end of the united Europe project, an idea borne out of the desire to never again experience the hatred, destruction and carnage of World War II. It was Winston Churchill himself, the greatest of contemporary Conservative prime ministers, who called for the “United States of Europe” in 1946. I wonder what he would have said if he had been at the Carlton Club last night.

We are living in an extraordinary historical moment, one that should be of concern to us all.  Populism is back and in a profoundly troubling way. The zeitgeist all over the West has become viscerally anti-establishment. The current political divide is not on the left-right economic continuum; rather, it pits everyday working people vs. elites and insiders.

Regular people are fed up with what they perceive as a state that doesn’t work for them, an economic system that doesn’t work for them, too much immigration, the over-bureaucratization of society and a loss of national identity. And the political class has failed spectacularly to pick up on these undercurrents, which are now out in the open for all to see. In fact, some political leaders are irresponsibly stoking these divisions, playing up xenophobia, racism or worse. This sentiment has fuelled Donald Trump and these elements were too present in the Brexit narrative.

As the night went on and the geographic breakdown of the results became known, it all made sense. A small majority of the British electorate — but a large majority of English people outside London, and the Welsh — voted to leave the EU. A pretty clean urban-rural split. It was clear the Remain camp was in trouble when you spoke to regular folks, who said they  were voting to leave. Almost every Remain supporter I spoke with is involved in business or the financial sector.

Now, a two year process will be launched to extricate Britain from the EU, which will likely take less time given the EU’s demand that the departure be done with quickly. We have already seen some Scots demanding a second independence referendum, Marine Le Pen in France calling for a “Frexit” and the Northern Irish are questioning their belonging to the UK.

As you enter the Carlton Club, a large portrait of David Cameron hangs on a pillar beside the main staircase. As I left the club early yesterday morning, I wondered if that portrait would still be there by end of day.

A stroll through Stoke Park

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Needing a break from the Brexit action, my friend Edwina was kind enough to take me golfing Sunday at her home course, Stoke Park, in Buckinghamshire. Now, Stoke Park isn’t any old golf course. Look at the clubhouse below. It’s a spectacular building. Do you recognize it?

Of course you do:

That’s right. It’s the course featured in my favourite Bond movie, Goldfinger. Below is a plaque that greets players on the 17th tee:

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And here is a majestic country manor along one of the holes:

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Stoke Park is a beautiful English parkland course, with some really challenging holes, especially on the second 9. (There are three in total). We played on a Sunday, and in that terrific English tradition there were families with babies in strollers and others walking around at the same time as the golfers, as in a park. And they make a mean Pimms and lemonade for an after-round refreshment. A great experience.

Kellie Leitch op-ed postmortem

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In nearly 20 years of writing op-eds, I’ve never had a response quite like the one to the article I published earlier this week, entitled “A Clinton in Trump’s clothing“.

The article had two main points. The first is that Tory leadership candidate Kellie Leitch is disingenuous with her proposal to screen would-be immigrants with a “values test” because she doesn’t believe in it. In fact, despite her effort to ape the populist wave that carried Donald Trump to success in America, Kellie is actually more like Hillary Clinton — the type of politician who will say or do anything if they think it will be popular. The second point is that the policy isn’t even “conservative”. If anything, Leitch’s idea replicates the type of identity politics that the Left has championed over the past few decades. Her leadership campaign, successful or not, could cause serious damage to conservatism in Canada.

I heard from former Harper cabinet ministers, Conservative MPs, Senators, current and former Conservative and Liberal staffers, Conservative and Liberal party activists, and other friends and acquaintances — some of whom I had not been in touch with for a decade or more. The reactions were all positive — Thank you! Great job! Keep it up! — except for one negative (but predictable) tweet from Leitch’s campaign manager calling me a “Montreal Elite”, and an insult tweeted by someone who said I shouldn’t be able to pronounce on the issue because I’m a Muslim (I’m not, but even if I were, the guy was clearly a nutter).

To be clear: I am a non partisan. I am not a Conservative Party member, and not involved in the leadership race. But those who are need to realize that Kellie is — unfortunately — making a lot of headway with her phony populist scheme, and should be considered in the top tier of candidates, if not the front-runner. She might not be getting a lot of big-name support, but she is signing up a lot of people whose names you’ve never heard of — the people who actually show up to vote in a one-member, one-vote leadership contest.

Of course there is a legitimate point to be made about integration of new immigrants to Canada. That conversation should be had. But the way Kellie Leitch is going about it, by proposing a simplistic back-of-the-napkin approach to the issue, has to be called out for what it is: insincere, opportunistic and retrograde.

Kevin O’Leary is the man to beat

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Kevin O’Leary, and especially those advising him, deserve a lot of credit. From a public relations perspective he’s handled his entry into politics brilliantly so far. Here are a few things I’ve noticed.

  1. Flawless execution of the “phony war”: For weeks — months actually — O’Leary got free media coverage as he hummed and hawed about whether he would actually run for Tory leader. Other candidates even fell into his trap, putting out press releases and making public comments about his need to make a decision. All this kept him in the news and relevant. In addition to that, his exploratory committee and website allowed him to identify a ton (probably thousands) of would-be supporters before he even entered the race.
  2. Upstaging the French-language debate: Rather than attend the French-language debate last night in Quebec City, O’Leary instead leaked to the media yesterday afternoon that he would officially announce his candidacy today. As a result, he got as much or more coverage than the debate itself, overshadowing the other candidates.
  3.  Social media prowess: Everything O’Leary has done so far has been on social media, mostly videos on his Facebook page. He’s taking a page from Donald Trump here, but seems to be favouring Facebook rather than Trump’s preferred outlet, Twitter. He’s speaking directly to party members and Canadians who might vote for him, and not having his message distorted through the media.
  4. Lowering expectations on French:  O’Leary, who was born in Montreal, has portrayed himself as a unilingual anglophone, unable to speak French. However, his French appears to be better than he’s letting on publicly. He blurted out a single French sentence in an interview Sunday, and French-speakers will note right away that while it’s far from perfect, this is someone who knows a bit of French. Once he actually speaks French publicly in a substantive way, he’ll get credit for his hard work learning and improving.

I am looking at this race from a distance, not being involved in any political party or any campaign. And without passing judgement on his or any candidate’s merits and weaknesses, at this point I am confidant in saying this leadership race is Kevin O’Leary’s to lose.