After Harper, what will Canadian conservatism become?

Beaten back to its core in the west, the debate begins over the fate of the Conservative Party for the first time since its founding

As Stephen Harper left the stage on Monday night, murmurs grew to a wide-open conversation for the first time in a decade. That conversation about the fate of the party—its leadership, its direction, the very meaning and purpose of Canadian conservatism—will only grow in the next weeks and months, in a party so used to operating strictly on talking points in public, if in public at all.

Being firmly shut out of power until 2019 is a harsher blow than Conservatives expected, but it gives them the luxury of time to figure out their flavour of renewal. The party was shut out almost entirely from Canada’s big cities and suburbs, losing in nearly all the crucial multicultural ridings cultivated by Jason Kenney, the man blessed and cursed with the “heir apparent” rap. The downsized, 99-member caucus is once again dominated by seats west of Manitoba, though the party can’t even claim that the West is its sole dominion. It only claimed 54 seats in that region, compared to 50 for the Liberals, NDP and Greens.

Related: A transcript of Stephen Harper’s concession speech

The debate could devolve into reductionist dichotomies: a leadership contest pitting a Western leader versus an Eastern leader, a Reformer versus a Red Tory, Jason Kenney versus Please No Not Him, perhaps with former Ontario minister Michael Chong playing the third-way maverick. But around this will form some more profound questions: Does the party need a new direction, or will some sort of new tone give it a fresh enough appeal to become ascendant in the post-Harper era?

Already, voices that often stayed quiet or private want to go on record, as happens after defeat. The day after the election, longtime Harper campaign war-room hand Ken Boessenkool spoke out about his belief that a woman like Lisa Raitt or Rona Ambrose should become leader, instead of the short list of males, after victories by premiers Kathleen Wynne, Christy Clark and Rachel Notley.

“Women beat men in Canadian politics right now, and if we don’t take proper stock of that, especially against a person like Justin Trudeau, we’re asking for trouble,” Boessenkool said. The Calgary-based strategist insists this isn’t a swipe against Kenney, but adds: “Jason has a very difficult thing to answer in the next short while. What he wants to do . . . I’m not sure he knows,” he said.

Canada's Prime Minister Stephen Harper gives a pair of thumbs up gestures as he gives his concession speech after Canada's federal election in Calgary, Alberta, October 19, 2015. (Mark Blinch/Reuters)

Canada’s Prime Minister Stephen Harper gives a pair of thumbs up gestures as he gives his concession speech after Canada’s federal election in Calgary, Alberta, October 19, 2015. (Mark Blinch/Reuters)

For the buzzing clamour about the need for a next leader from Central Canada or the East, there’s agnosticism from Ontario’s John Capobianco of the Mike Harris-era Progressive Conservatives. “Nobody cared that Justin Trudeau was from Quebec at the end of the campaign. It becomes a question about the leader’s style and what the leader can do with the party; the candidates she can bring to bear.”

The Tories won’t just have to figure out how to return to government. They’ll also have to figure out how to behave in Opposition, liberated from the old message loop imposed on them by the old leadership. Engaged political watchers would have had to be reminded during the campaign that solid Ontario ministers Peter van Loan and Tony Clement were actually still in the picture and hadn’t joined Peter MacKay, John Baird and James Moore on the political sidelines.

The social conservatives consistently shushed by Harper could also feel free to begin humming their tunes on issues such as abortion—and with a more rural and small-town caucus, they’ll have more clout, probably to the horror of remaining Conservative moderates and to the delight of their rival parties. The vast majority of them will be in opposition for the first time, requiring them to mix up their messages and sometimes shout to be heard above the new Liberal government. In those shouts, the embarrassing moments Harper had grown to fear may come out, but so could new ideas and perhaps new party stars.

Many in the party, ashamed of campaigning on the status quo, want bold policies to come out atop of the existing small-c conservative foundation they don’t think is faulty. Being the party of “No,” as the U.S. Republicans became, can get old fast when the government has a thicket of new ideas to enact and all the critics have is panic about high spending.

There will be polarizing figures and spiteful comments in a possibly long, bitter leadership race. The party will have big internal debates for the first time since its formation in 2003, when the Canadian Alliance and Progressive Conservatives merged under Harper. Will it descend into madness or fissure? Conservatives know full well what happens when Red and Reform divorce.