VICTORIA -- Premier Vander Zalm would be well advised to look over his shoulder from now on. Not only is his backbench every bit as strong as his cabinet, it is poised to speak out against him and put a stop to his one-man rule, real or imagined.
For as long as British Columbians can remember, their premiers have governed from positions of strength. W.A.C. Bennett, Dave Barrett and Bill Bennett all managed to put together fairly impressive cabinets without alienating those left out.
Choosing a cabinet is a difficult job at the best of times. Not only must a premier find the best people for the jobs, but old loyalties must be rewarded and geographical circumstances considered.
I'm sure it wasn't always easy, but Vander Zalm's three predecessors somehow managed to appoint good cabinets and have dedicated and loyal backbenches. All of which enabled them to stand united against the opposition.
That's not the case with Vander Zalm. He must now govern with a cabinet that is, in places, extremely weak while, at the same time, preparing for the inevitable attacks from the rear -- his own backbench. And what a backbench it is, at least a group of eight MLAs already dubbed the rat pack.
The two emerging as leaders of the pack are Grace McCarthy and Brian Smith, both of whom resigned recently, claiming the premier interfered with their duties.
You may doubt Smith's motives for resigning, but you should also remember that he wouldn't have dreamed of resigning when he served under Bill Bennett. If Smith has ambitions to become leader of the Socred Party, it's only because he perceives a fatal flaw in Vander Zalm's leadership.
McCarthy's motives are not to be doubted. She's too much of a fierce and dedicated Socred to place personal ambitions before the party's fortunes. Her resignation from cabinet should make ever Socred nervous.
Next on the rat pack bench is Stephen Rogers, MLA for Vancouver South, who was dropped from cabinet in the last shuffle. In Rogers' own words, the premier was no longer willing to tolerate his occasional criticism in caucus and cabinet. The premier, he said, demanded absolute loyalty. Rogers is a formidable enemy who, despite his occasional brushes with conflict of interest, was one of the most capable cabinet ministers and well-liked by the party.
On to Kim Campbell, lawyer, Bill Bennett loyalist and contestant at the Whistler leadership convention. It's generally agreed that if the delegates had based their choice on the candidates' speeches, she would have been the winner. The MLA for Vancouver-Point Grey first voiced criticism of the premier's leadership style during the abortion debate. Style without substance, she said at the time, was "a dangerous thing."
Next, meet Graham Bruce, who captured the long-time NDP stronghold of Cowichan-Malahat in the last election. Much of Bruce's popularity is due to his role in a forestry program that was aimed at putting thousands of people on Vancouver Island to work. The program, which enjoyed the backing of most Vancouver Island municipalities, has been largely abandoned by the government.
Bruce rejected an offer from the premier for a parliamentary secretary's position after the cabinet shuffle, stating the he and the premier didn't see eye-to-eye on how the government operates.
Dave Mercier, MLA for Burnaby-Edmonds, also turned down a parliamentary secretary's job, accusing the premier's office of not even having the smarts to ask him before appointing him.
Carol Gran, MLA for Langley and another member of the dissident group of backbenchers, was also overlooked by the premier at his own risk when he chose his new cabinet. She had been a strong caucus chairman, and another women in cabinet would certainly have been in order, but Gran, too, has been critical of the premier's one-man rule.
And last, but not least, there's Alex Fraser, the grand master of politics from the Cariboo. Fraser will probably not run again, but just last week, he said he "would do anything to get rid of Vander Zalm."
A group of people such as these, united in their opposition to the premier's leadership, can only spell trouble for Vander Zalm. Taken as a whole, this group is stronger and more convincing than the premier's cabinet.
On top of it all, Vander Zalm is facing a skilled opposition that feels so close to victory, it can smell it.
These considerations and others should go through the minds of Socred Party officials as they prepare for the October convention.
Dumping a sitting premier as party leader is a traumatic business, but more and more Socreds are convinced that the alternative is a crushing defeat in the next election.