To make sense of the short tenures of the four Prime Ministers who followed Macdonald, you have to bear in mind the following factors:[ul]
[li]the age of the Conservative ministry. From 1867 to 1891, the Conservatives had been in power under Macdonald’s leadership for nearly twenty years (except for one interruption between 1873 and 1885, when the Liberals were in power). The Conservative caucus was getting pretty long in the tooth, without much new blood or new talent. Towards the end, it had been Macdonald’s personality and leadership which had held the ministry together. For many of the Cabinet and caucus, he was the only leader they had known. Once his forceful personality was gone, caucus discipline dropped sharply.[/li]
[li]the lack of any clear mechanisms for choosing a party leader. During this period of parliamentary history, leaders weren’t chosen by conventions or the party membership, but informally by the caucus members. If one MP dominated the caucus, as Macdonald had done, and the caucus had a relatively coherent platform, the choice of party leader was usually clear, but if the caucus lacked a dominant personality, and was split on policy, the choice of a leader became very difficult.[/li]
[li]the personal authority of the Governor General. As the Queen’s representative, during this period the Governor General retained greater personal authority in the choice of the Prime Minister. If the caucus was united, the GG didn’t have much room to exercise that power, but if the caucus was divided, the GG had a greater role to play in the choice of the Prime Minister.[/li]
[li]the importance of sectarian divisions. Religious affiliation was still an important aspect of one’s political career. Canada had very strong sectarian divisions between Roman Catholics and Protestants, a division which also tended to mirror linguistic divisions (except in the case of Scots and Irish Roman Catholics, who were anglos).[/li]
[li]strong personal animosity in some Conservative quarters towards the Tuppers, father and son, a factor which came into play toward the end of the period.[/li][/ul]
Macdonald died on June 6, 1891, having just led the party to one last election victory. At that time, the strongest candidate for Prime Minister, on paper at least, was Sir John Thompson, a very able MP from Nova Scotia. However, as SavageNarce points out, he was Roman Catholic. Not only that, he had been Protestant but converted to Roman Catholicism upon his marriage. (I believe that Macdonald had commented that Thompson had thrown away his political career when he married his Roman Catholic wife, adding “but there are no brains below the belt.”) Thus, he was considered a religious traitor by the Orangemen of Ontario, but not really a Roman Catholic by the ultramontane wing of the Conservative Party in Quebec. He didn’t have much support and did have strong opposition. In modern parlance, his negatives were high.
With the caucus divided, the GG, Lord Stanley, pushed hard for Thompson, as the ablest candidate for Prime Minister. Thompson refused, but the GG’s intervention helped to emphasise that he was the strongest candidate, which inevitably weakened the real political power of any other candidate.
In the end, the caucus and GG settled on Sir John Abbott, who agreed to be PM on the understanding that Thompson would be the deputy PM and do most of the heavy lifting. Another unusual feature of the arrangement was that Abbott was in the Senate, not in the Commons, where of course most of the political activity took place. So you have a strong and charismatic Prime Minister, Macdonald, being replaced by a compromise candidate without much personal political influence, or even much interest in being Prime Minister. That’s not a recipe for a successful ministry.
Abbott took office in June 1891, but didn’t last very long in the Prime Minister’s chair because of heart troubles. Eventually his doctor told him he had to quit working. Abbott gladly complied with that medical advice and resigned in November, 1892. This time, the caucus was pretty much forced to take Thompson, whose performance as Deputy Prime Minister had confirmed that he was the ablest canidate. (Amongst other things, he had successfuly defused a potentially messy scandal in the Public Works Department, which then as now is a major skill required of the PM. :rolleyes: ) Some historians think that given enough time, Thompson could have revitalised the Conservative party.
Unfortunately for the Conservatives, Thompson also had heart trouble. Unlike the easy-going Abbott, he resisted his doctor’s orders to relax, with the memorable result that he died of a massive heart attack at a dinner party at Windsor Castle in December, 1894.
Now the Conservatives were really in a pinch. The caucus remained badly split, containing francophone ultramontane Roman Catholics from Quebec, militant Protestant Orangemen from Ontario, various non-entities, and several individuals with personal followings. Although there was no front-runner, one person whose name was suggested was Sir Charles Tupper the elder, who was a Father of Confederation, currently serving as Canada’s High Commisisioner to London. His son, Charles H. Tupper, was in the Cabinet. Unfortunately for the Tuppers, they had enemies. The younger Tupper seemed to have an abrasive personality and had alienated some of his Cabinet colleagues, while Tupper père had been a political adversary of the late Sir John Thompson. (Both Tupper and Thompson were from Nova Scotia and had tangled over internal Conservative policy and patronage - the two being almost identical.)
So, before Sir John’s body was cold in his grave, Lady Thompson was telling her good friend, Lady Aberdeen, that she, Lady Thompson, would consider it a personal insult if the Governor General asked Tupper père to be Prime Minister. Since Lady Aberdeen’s husband, Lord Aberdeen, was the new Governor General, this message from the grieving widow carried particular force, especially since Lady Aberdeen had the reputation of making up Lord Aberdeen’s mind for him on most matters.
With Tupper scratched, the caucus and GG eventually settled on Mackenzie Bowell, who had been the acting Prime Minister while Thompson was in Europe. It was a disasterous choice for several reasons. First, like Abbott, Bowell was a Senator, not an MP, so he lacked political clout in the Commons. Second, Bowell was not that bright, but was old and set in his ways, not a promising combination. Third, those ways included a militant Orangeism: he had been the Grand Master of the Orange Order in Ontario, which certainly did not endear him to the Roman Catholic Conservatives from Quebec. And fourth, the burning issue of the day was the Manitoba Schools Question, involving the thorny issue of separate Roman Catholic schools for the French-speaking minority in Manitoba, a matter upon which a past Grand Master of the Orange Order would not be particularly flexible or sympathetic.
Bowell managed to stay in power for just over two years, but it was a stormy time. He had trouble filling the Cabinet, and especially had difficulty getting any Quebec MPs to join the ministry, a fatal weakness when a unified front was needed to deal with the schools question. He also faced continual intrigues from his caucus and Cabinet, including Tupper fils, who resigned from Cabinet, came back in a few days later, and then organized a Cabinet revolt that tried to force the GG to dismiss Bowell. Ultimately, Bowell had to resign in the early spring of 1896, just as a controversial piece of legislation, the remedial school legislation for Manitoba, was introduced in the Commons.
This time, Lord Aberdeen didn’t have a choice. With Tupper fils raising hell in the Cabinet, the caucus badly split, and a vacancy in the Prime Minister’s chair, he felt he had to call on Tupper père, who was back in Canada and re-elected to the Commons, to form a government. By that time it was just too late. The Liberals under Laurier talked out the remedial school legislation until the Commons’ term of five years ran out and an election was necessary. Laurier swept to power, and the Tories were out of office until 1911.