Ottawa — Brian Mulroney, a former working-class boy from a northern Quebec mill town, has been elected leader of Canada's Progressive Conservative Party, sending a shudder through the ruling Liberal Party of Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau.
The Conservatives have about 50 percent of popular support in the opinion polls, and that would almost guarantee the party a majority government if an election were held today.
Mr. Mulroney defeated Joe Clark at a party convention June 11 in Ottawa. Mr. Clark had been party leader since 1976.
Although Mulroney has been deeply involved in Tory politics all his adult life, he has never run for office, something his opponents berated him for in the leadership campaign. He will not have to run the party from the sidelines, until a seat can be opened in the House of Commons. It would be easy for him to win a seat in English-speaking Canada, but he would have to run a tough race in the Liberal stronghold of Quebec.
Mulroney's win is a victory for the right wing of the Conservative Party. Clark, though hardly a radical, tended to be softer on social issues. Mulroney has been a labor lawyer and president of the Iron Ore Company of Canada in Montreal. He has said that his business experience is something the country needs.
But perhaps what the Conservatives need most is Mulroney's ability to speak French. The party has not done well in the predominantly French-speaking Quebec throughout this century, except for one brief fling with the Tories in 1958.
Political observers from Quebec at the weekend convention said that Mulroney would bring at least 25 of Quebec's 74 federal seats to the Conservatives in the next general election, which could come within the next two years. The Conservatives have but one seat in Quebec, the Liberals have the rest.
The Liberal Party's head start in Quebec means that it has had little trouble winning the federal elections. It lost to Joe Clark in 1979, but was back in power after nine months out of office. That quick shuffle was one reason that many in the party wanted to replace Clark.
Mulroney's Quebec background worries Mr. Trudeau. He would have preferred a non-French-speaking leader of the opposition. Mulroney even speaks a different kind of French than Trudeau. The prime minister's accent is more aristocratic, Mulroney's an earthier style of street French, with which many Quebec voters may identify.
The Liberals, too, may have a new leader up their sleeve. Trudeau, who has been party leader since 1968, has said he will step down - but he has not said when.
Waiting in the wings is John Turner, a former minister of finance under Trudeau. Turner is said to be the front-runner in any Liberal leadership race. Like Mulroney, he speaks both French and English. Like Mulroney, he has business background. Mulroney could probably beat Trudeau, but the question is, could he beat Turner?
Mulroney says that when he gets to power, he is going to make it easier to do business in Canada, including for Americans. He made a point of saying Canada should have closer ties to the United States.
But all that comes later. Now he must get himself a seat in Parliament and prepare to do battle at the next election with the Liberal prime minister, whomever that may be.