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Christine Elliott concedes PC leadership vote to Doug Ford

Late Sunday, Christine Elliott congratulated Doug Ford on winning the Ontario Progressive Conservative leadership race.

Doug Ford marches in Sunday's St. Patrick's Day parade. Ford was declared yesterday the new Ontario PC party leader.

Torstar News Service

Doug Ford marches in Sunday's St. Patrick's Day parade. Ford was declared yesterday the new Ontario PC party leader.

His party calls him the “definitive” winner of the Ontario PC leadership race — and now his closest competitor agrees.

While Christine Elliott had refused to concede defeat Saturday night after the voting results came in — later saying “serious irregularities” marred the process — and hunkered down with lawyers Sunday, by dinnertime she had met with Ford.

“The pace of this Ontario PC leadership race has been rapid and there have been a number of unexpected turns along the way. That is why our team took the last 24 hours to review the results of an election that was incredibly close,” Elliott said in a statement released just before 8 p.m. on Sunday.

“After completing my review, I am confident in the results. I extend my congratulations to Doug Ford on a hard-fought campaign.”

While Christine Elliott had refused to concede defeat Saturday night after the voting results came in, but dinnertime on Sunday she had met with Ford.

Justin Tang / The Canadian Press File

While Christine Elliott had refused to concede defeat Saturday night after the voting results came in, but dinnertime on Sunday she had met with Ford.

The tussle over the election results arose after Elliott won both the popular vote as well as 64 ridings, compared to Ford’s 60 on the third ballot — yet still lost the race.

“Our scrutineers identified entire towns voting in the wrong riding. In a race this close, largely determined by geography, someone needs to stand up for these members,” Elliott said earlier in the day.

But the Ontario PC Party’s leadership committee called the results “definitive” and said they “provide a clear mandate to Doug Ford.”

“The issue was extensively investigated by the chief electoral officer and the election team,” said committee chair Hartley Lefton. “… The identified issue would not statistically lead to a change in the outcome of the vote,” and so Elliott’s internal appeal was dismissed.

Speaking on CP24, Ford — who during the leadership campaign also cast doubts on the process, supporting a bid for an injunction to extend voting — said he and Elliott will “always be friends.”

“I appreciate her thoughts, I look forward to her being part of our team and she’ll play an instrumental role,” he said before meeting with her. “We want to make sure, together, we’re going to defeat Kathleen Wynne and bring prosperity back to the province.”

But the dispute kept the party mired in chaos following high drama on Saturday, after Ford’s narrow victory was announced some seven hours late.

Elliott’s campaign had said there were fewer than 150 points separating her and Ford of the possible 12,000 in play, and that matters under the complex system for Tories to select a new leader — where the number of votes in each riding determine how many electoral points a candidate is allotted.

But on Sunday, calls were increasing for Elliott to abandon any challenge, arguing the party needs to move forward given the provincial election is less than three months away — including a plea from former Premier Mike Harris.

“It’s time for everyone to put our party and our province first,” Harris told the Star’s Robert Benzie

Harris, the PC premier from 1995 until 2002, remains a widely respected figure in the party. Elliott’s late husband, Jim Flaherty, was his finance minister in 2001-02.

The former premier contacted the Star because he wants Conservatives to get on with working to unseat Wynne’s Liberals in the June 7 election.

Former Tory MPP Janet Ecker — who served as education minister in Harris’ government — said earlier in the day that “if there are legitimate grounds for a challenge, you can understand why Christine would be doing it, because she did fight long and hard for this, and clearly she has a very strong base of support.”

However, she said with so little time before the general election, “we have to get on with the job” of running the campaign.

On Sunday afternoon, Wynne tweeted out congratulations, and told a Brampton rally that she’d “like to wish Doug well, even though we disagree about many things, I welcome him to provincial politics …

“This news, however, changes very little for us. Who we are fighting against has changed, but who we are fighting for has not. We are fighting for the people of Ontario — and that’s what this election is about,” later warning Ford’s plans for the province could cost up to 40,000 public sector positions.

The PC party was forced into a condensed campaign after former leader Patrick Brown stepped down amid accusations of sexual misconduct with two inebriated young women while he was a federal MP.

At Saturday’s convention, interim PC Leader Vic Fedeli implored party members to be unified — but that is more easily said than done, observers say.

Christopher Cochrane, an author and political science professor at the University of Toronto, said Ford had the advantage going into the race but said the result is likely “unprecedented in Canadian politics if in fact it is true that Christine Elliott won the most votes, and won the most ridings, but still lost the election.”

He said the process itself has led to divisions, given ridings with fewer Conservative members can provide candidates with large margins.

As well, caucus members — many who supported Elliott — appear to be at odds with Ford, who eventually won.

“They’ve elected Doug Ford, who by his own words is planning to be a wrecking ball,” said Cochrane, who said despite internal party woes, Ford does give the PCs a good chance of winning in the general election.

“There was such a narrow margin of difference in the vote . . . it reflects such a polarization and divide in the party, and the winner ends up being a highly polarizing force,” added Myer Siemiatycki, a politics professor at Ryerson.

“In some ways, they’ve ended up with the worst of all worlds. A discredited campaign, a leader who is highly polarizing and that’s the person who is somehow charged now with trying to build bridges and unity and common purpose.”

But bringing the two sides together is always a challenge after any leadership race, said Ecker, “and the test of the Doug Ford leadership is how well he can reach out and put the party back together again.”

“The party has spoken,” she said. “And it’s time for everybody to get behind Doug.”

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