Blaine Higgs has always been something of an awkward visitor in the Progressive Conservative Party.
He’s like that person who shows up at a house party as a virtual stranger or a new acquaintance barely known to the hosts.
They liven up the evening, but sometimes the party-goers look askance when they become disruptive.
“I did not grow up in a political family,” Higgs said when he launched his campaign to win the PC leadership in 2016. “I did not come from deep roots politically.”
Higgs had served one term as finance minister in a previous Tory government, but prior to 2010 never held elective office and hadn’t even been a PC Party member.
He portrayed himself — accurately — as an outsider, the kind of person the party and the province needed to lead what he called “a movement” to save New Brunswick.
“I have the independence of thinking this province desperately needs,” he said.
Now Higgs faces a push from within for a leadership review, with more than half of party riding presidents signing letters to trigger the process.
And his willingness to defy long-established partisan norms is coming back to haunt him.
As minister of finance from 2010 to 2014, that willingness to question the conventional wisdom of party politics was often bracing and refreshing.
He uttered uncomfortable truths that political veterans never acknowledged: that expensive, poorly thought out campaign promises were responsible for a large part of the province’s big deficits and debt.
“It’s a case when politicians are the most vulnerable, and people say ‘I’ll get him to promise this,'” he said.
Another example was Higgs’s refusal to endorse Premier David Alward’s patronage appointment of cabinet minister Margaret-Ann Blaney to a plush Crown CEO job.
Longtime party stalwarts simply don’t do that. They fall in line.
Higgs was different. That became his biggest asset, central to his brand.
Even Higgs’s past involvement with the anti-bilingualism Confederation of Regions party — alarming to many francophones — underscored that he was truly different.
He once described threatening to resign when political staffers in Alward’s office rewrote his budget speech on the eve of its delivery.
They backed off that time, he said, but in 2016 he argued he needed the top job to overcome those tired, same-old political considerations for good.
“I’m running for premier because I can’t get it done as finance minister,” he said.
Little support from MLAs
Only three sitting PC MLAs endorsed him, an indicator of how his more conventional colleagues saw his maverickness.
So he signed up countless new party members to go around them.
He told those recruits that “it doesn’t matter what the party’s called — use the PC Party as a conduit to change politics in New Brunswick.”
Saint John Lancaster MLA Dorothy Shephard, who quit cabinet last week over Higgs’s management style, wrote in a 2021 letter to him that most of his leadership supporters “had never supported the [PC Party] or had any connection to anyone in the party.”
And, she added, most of them “are nowhere to be found now.”
Most MLAs who worked with Higgs in the Alward cabinet endorsed other leadership candidates in 2016 and chafed at his open disdain for old-fashioned party ways.
“When it’s done right … politics is what makes things happen,” veteran Portland-Simonds member Trevor Holder said at the time.
“Sometimes that takes political friendships and alliances to get that done.”
Holder was among the cabinet ministers who defied Higgs last week to vote for an opposition motion calling for more consultations on changes to LGBTQ protections for students in Policy 713.
Higgs won the leadership and the sceptics fell in line, then watched as his unconventional approach became, in their minds, a political liability.
Criticism from caucus
The main accusation by his caucus critics is that he cuts them out of his decision-making process.
His 2020 push for health reforms — including the proposed closure of small hospital emergency departments — cost him his only francophone MLA at the time, Robert Gauvin.
Gauvin’s father was the late Jean Gauvin, a longtime member of Richard Hatfield’s cabinet who helped keep the embers of PC support flickering in Shippagan during the party’s 12-year exile from power.
Jean Gauvin also stood by Hatfield when party rebels tried to remove him from the leadership in 1985 — so his son’s move to the Liberals is another symbol of Higgs’s break with party history.
Another francophone who backed Hatfield during that battle, Jean-Pierre Ouellet from Madawaska-Les Lacs-Edmundston, is now part of the push to dump Higgs, arguing the premier is advancing ideas inimical to the PC Party.
“As far as I’m concerned, he’s trying to implement a platform that was the CoR platform when he was campaigning for the CoR party in the 1980s,” Ouellete said.
Outsider status could be a threat
So the premier’s outsider status — the very thing that propelled him to power — now threatens to undo him.
His best defence is his record: big budget surpluses, a lower provincial debt, low unemployment and unprecedented population growth.
But recent comments by Higgs suggest he doubts any potential new PC leader would live up to what he considers the high standards of success he has achieved.
“That is what’s weighing heavy on my mind: are we going to keep the ball rolling or are we going to regress and go back into the political process?”
That’s another alarming heresy for party veterans who value continuity, succession planning and long-term political viability.
Higgs dismissed the review push in a statement Wednesday that did not acknowledge there are letters from a majority of riding presidents.
Instead he called it “a strategically planned political drama” that has been “a focus from a certain group for a few years now,” now heightened by the Policy 713 debate.
In her 2021 letter to Higgs, Shephard said that when he launched his leadership bid, she concluded he “didn’t want to be leader of the Progressive Conservative Party of New Brunswick; you just wanted to be ‘leader.'”
But the two can’t be separated: if the push for a leadership review succeeds, Higgs would be facing the end of his tenure as both PC leader and premier.
That’s the choice now facing party members: what to do with this guest who, to many, is wearing out his welcome.