TORONTO – On his final campaign flight from Abbotsford, B.C. to Calgary, Stephen Harper sat with his closest friends and began putting together the plan for his exit from the Conservative party leadership.
That plan began unfolding Tuesday as Conservative politicians and the party’s rank-and-file look to a future leadership race — only the merged party’s second — in order to move forward and rebuild from a devastating election loss.
Harper was calm about the defeat that lay before him, according to sources who spoke to The Canadian Press over the past 24 hours. During the flight, he sat alternately with longtime aide Ray Novak and party president John Walsh.
In the days to come, the structure of the upcoming leadership race will take shape. Senior parliamentarians Diane Finley, Tony Clement and Rob Nicholson are among the names being floated for interim leader.
At the same time as the leadership race is set in motion, the activists are in the process of raking through the embers of the campaign, analyzing what went wrong and who is to blame.
The party’s executive director, Dustin van Vugt, is in charge of a process to review the campaign.
A senior party source said the party will be in debt as a result of the election campaign, something the members aren’t used to. Considerable anger is being directed at campaign manager Jenni Byrne.
A high-placed Conservative source with intimate knowledge of the campaign argued that Harper personally performed well, and the leader’s tour ran efficiently, but everything else was “an epic failure.”
“While it’s ultimately the prime minister’s fault because he allowed Jenni to have that role, it is inexcusable that she had four years to prepare for this campaign and was simply wholly unprepared,” said the source, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were discussing internal party matters.
“When the party conducts its internal review, over the course of the next number of months, this one is going to be very thorough and we’re going to identify the mistakes that were made, the processes that weren’t followed.
“We’re not going to make those mistakes again.”
In a sign of how tense things had become, Byrne was packing up her office in the Ottawa party war room as early as last Thursday. She was not in Calgary on election night, and was out of the job Tuesday morning.
During the campaign, sources say long-standing friction between Byrne and campaign director Guy Giorno just became worse, and the two strong personalities clashed over elements of the campaign.
Eventually, their hostility spilled over into bad blood between Byrne and Novak, who is the person Harper trusts the most.
The source said Byrne struggled throughout the 78-day campaign, complaining to confidantes that she felt for the first time in her career that her gender had become an issue in the male-dominated Conservative operation. She has told friends she is taking a break from politics.
There are different ideas of why the campaign did not succeed. Some point to failings in the nuts-and-bolts organization of the campaign, while others believe the problems centred around the leader himself and his choice of message — factors no local candidate could control.
Byrne herself went door-knocking with candidates in the greater Toronto area in mid-September, only to learn first-hand that public antipathy towards Harper was higher than the party had realized, said the source.
Dan Miles, a senior aide to outgoing finance minister Joe Oliver, said it was clear in the riding that voters were looking for change. Oliver lost his Eglinton-Lawrence riding in a near Liberal sweep of the greater Toronto area.
“The only negative I really ever heard was that they liked Joe, but they had a problem with the leader,” said Miles.
“That was the only consistent thing I ever heard.”
Meanwhile, the leader’s message on the larger economy rather than specific pocketbook issues wasn’t resonating as well as they had hoped.
Public opinion researcher Hamish Marshall, a former PMO staffer and party pollster, issued a newsletter to clients Tuesday with lessons learned about the Conservative loss.
“The Conservative platform was essentially the 2015 budget with no new promises. The party was content to run on its record,” Marshall wrote.
“With no big idea from the government, the election was going to be fought on change and with a focus on personalities.”
The niqab issue raised by Harper dealt a blow to NDP Leader Tom Mulcair in Quebec, but it also seemed to wound the New Democrats elsewhere.
“I think that, and maybe some other policies, were responsible for the collapse of the NDP, which had a very significant impact on the national results,” said Oliver.
Calgary Conservative MP Jason Kenney, widely believed to be a serious leadership contender, alluded to problems with the party message. Trudeau had focused on optimism, while Harper issued dire warnings of bleak economic times and terrorist threats.
“We need a conservatism that is sunnier and more optimistic than what we have sometimes conveyed,” Kenney said. “We have to take collective responsibility for that.”
On the other side, there are those who believe the party’s losses can be attributed to poor preparation and not taking advantage of its wealth of previous experience.
That would include the training of local volunteers, the recruitment of candidates, convincing incumbents to run again, vetting candidates, and targeting key ridings.
“In this case I fear that, like all parties in power, we got fat and happy,” said Chad Rogers, a party loyalist who volunteered during the 2006 campaign, then run by the late Doug Finley.
“This campaign was not as lean, as focused or as aggressive as the ones that preceded it. A lot of candidate and campaign managers that I’ve been talking to informally were very surprised that things we were good at, just weren’t done this time.”
Rogers said there would be questions asked about how money was spent, especially the abandoning of a new, multi-million voter identification system two years ago.
The source close to the war room said that it will be unfair to lay the blame all on Byrne, who also led the successful 2011 campaign. Van Vugt would have been the person responsible for anything to do with candidates, some Conservatives point out.
“She’s a lightning rod, partly because of her personality, but also because she’s a woman,” said the source.
“She’s going to bear the brunt of a lot of sniffing because she’s a woman at the top of the food chain.”
© The Canadian Press, 2015