By Trevor Busch
Ottawa’s long knives have finally drawn the blood of Conservative Party leader Andrew Scheer, who many believe should have thrown in the towel moments after an election night debacle in October clearly branded him as the man who couldn’t get the job done in going after a vulnerable Trudeau on the hustings.
It should really come as no surprise for most Canadians, even for those firmly rooted in the conservative camp. With that many questions swirling around one’s leadership capabilities only hours and days after a failed election campaign, what right-minded conservative voter would be interested in casting a ballot for Scheer in another election campaign down the road?
Political defeat can be a galling, embarrassing and altogether depressing outcome for a leader, but most acknowledge that stepping aside to allow a fresh face a kick at the can is usually the accepted practice.
Digging in your heels to the point where the party membership may be forced to remove you is graceless, petty and reeks of sour grapes — not to mention making the position of leader nearly untenable. Factional infighting and a bitter battle for the top job is not in the best interests of the Conservative Party when sitting in opposition in a minority Parliament.
But at least someone finally managed to get through to Scheer that although his ego might end up taking a decided body blow, perhaps the future of the party — some would say the nation — is significantly more important than his continued tenure. Either that, or revelations that the party was apparently funding the private education of his children — scandalous headlines which were about to break the day before his resignation — finally convinced the erstwhile Scheer, once billed as a prime minister in waiting, that his days in federal politics were indeed numbered.
The Conservative Party has been attempting to downplay the scandal suggesting these kinds of actions are somehow routine for party leaders and parties, without much success. The pathetic nature of Scheer’s resignation announcement, which attempted to suggest the leader needed to step away from federal politics for family reasons, has been rightly viewed as a thinly-veiled whitewash of the truth. At least he’ll be required to search the want ads in the future if he wants a pricey private education for his children, instead of expecting the card-carrying Great Unwashed to foot the bill.
It all conjures up memories of another former conservative leader, Stockwell Day, whose antics with jet skis and strong socially-conservative viewpoints drove the Canadian Alliance Party to another poor showing at the polls in the 2000 election. Day also chose to hang on to the leadership until the fall of 2001, but mounting gaffes and opposition from within the party finally flipped the switch on the former Alberta provincial cabinet minister. There are eerie similarities between Day’s 2000 election campaign and Scheer’s performance in 2019. Day was plagued throughout his campaign with questions about his socially-conservative beliefs, while Scheer was dogged by similar questions about abortion and same-sex marriage that he never really provided an adequate answer for. Many analysts of the 2019 campaign have suggested this may have been the critical issue for undecided centrist voters suspicious of Scheer’s actual intentions.
On the other side of the House, of course, Justin Trudeau and the Liberals probably couldn’t be more pleased, at least in the short term. There are few parties that don’t want to see their political and ideological enemies in a state of utter disarray brought on by factional infighting, the bitterness of an election defeat many believed should have been a triumph, and the ministrations of a caucus targeting their leader in the crosshairs for a metaphorical assassination. Watching from across the floor in a minority Parliament, chaos is what you want to see among your enemies.
Staring at it in the cold light of political reality, however, the chaos is usually more advantageous to the government when it comes later rather than sooner. The Conservatives will go through some growing pains and probably come out the other side of it better and stronger than they were before, ready to take on the Liberals again in 24-odd months, or sooner. Had Scheer held on to his office with an iron grip to the bitter end and then left the party scrambling in the lead-up to a potential snap election — never fail to take advantage of your enemies’ weaknesses in a minority, the elder Trudeau would advise — and the Conservatives could have been staring defeat in the face yet again. Now, with the threat of another election largely mollified for the near future, the Conservatives will have time to anoint a dynamic new face to lead the party forward.
Just who that face will be has become the speculation of much splendid punditry from sea to shining sea in Canada in recent days as Scheer prepares to depart quietly into the night. Many are currently touting the political scruples of an old Harper war horse, Rona Ambrose, including Alberta Premier Jason Kenney, who has already gone to great lengths to assure everyone that he has no interest in the federal conservative leadership. Which probably means that he does: Kenney’s chameleon-like transformation from hell-for-leather federal Harper Toryite into right-wing true-blue champion of provincial supremacy and authority at the expense of the federal government was almost overnight. Shedding the emperor’s new clothes for a chance at 24 Sussex Drive shouldn’t be a difficult choice for Kenney.
Others are suggesting Peter MacKay, who merged the PCs with the Canadian Alliance to form the Conservative Party back in the desperate days of a divided right. MacKay subjected Scheer’s leadership to a withering fire throughout the election campaign. Notably, however, both MacKay and Ambrose are nominally “retired” from politics. Former leadership candidate Erin O’Toole is also being eyed as a potential candidate. The more long shots are being suggested to be former Saskatchewan premier Brad Wall, Michelle Rempel, Gordon Campbell, and even Don Cherry or former prime minister Stephen Harper making a comeback (no term limits up here in the Great White North).
In the end, however, it may not matter. Canada’s big-tent conservative coalition that came together to form the present-day Conservative Party is really still something of an experiment, and uniting the right may prove to have been much easier than keeping diverse factions all together under one big top, and gaping rips in the canvas have already been forming. Although it failed miserably in the 2019 election, Maxime Bernier’s People’s Party of Canada shouldn’t be dismissed so easily, at least in its wider political implications. One doesn’t have to be a political scientist to determine that federal election results in the late 20th century in Canada point to one glaring conclusion: a splintered, factionalized and radicalized right spells electoral defeat when confronting a strong contingent of progressive voters in this country. The fact is not all conservatives are a grey, faceless mass of totally like-minded individuals, and there are questions there the party has never really been capable of answering, such as how to effectively reconcile radical social conservatism with those simply more interested in strong fiscal policy?
The rifts between “conservatives” within the party and the swirling degrees of right or left in their Tory politics could spell disaster for the Conservative Party unless they can reforge a winning coalition. If the party fails to speak with an all-encompassing voice to all Tories — no small task to be sure — it will end up in pieces.