Selecting Maxime Bernier as Conservative leader would have qualified as a bold move. Revolutionary, even.
After years of perceived small ball under Stephen Harper, Conservative policy under Bernier would have shot right by leaps and bounds.
But in the end, it appears someone who styled himself as “Mad Max” presented too much risk. And so Conservatives elected 38-year-old former House Speaker Andrew Scheer as their leader over Bernier—albeit on the final ballot and by the slimmest of margins.
What? Did you expect any differently from a party and movement that values life, electoral and otherwise? Picking Scheer provides the best chance for the existing body of Canadian conservatives to stick together.
It is also a deeply cautious choice, one that values preserving the gains made by Stephen Harper over fresh thinking on how to make new advances with the electorate.
Were Maxime Bernier’s pledges to scrap supply management, overhaul health care, and shock the tax system simply too much? Or was it a more parochial concern like his accented English?
Or was it none of the above?
The inclusion of Pierre Lemieux—a staunch social conservative—until the eighth ballot, and Brad Trost—Mr. Social Conservative—in the race until the 11th ballot provides the answer.
The Conservatives might have won their 2011 majority without Quebec, but this leadership race shows no Conservative can secure his own party without social conservatives. Scheer was simply more trusted by this key constituency (over Bernier) to, if not advance social conservative positions, at least prevent their further erosion.
Here, Scheer will need to continue the art of Stephen Harper and keep social conservatives onside without overtly doing much for them. Scheer has, after all, declared gay marriage and abortion closed, as per party policy.
The need to at least speak to so-cons goes a long way toward explaining Scheer’s policy on universities and free speech, which will send the right signal to a crowd nervous about L/liberal bodies cracking down on conservative thought on gays and marriage (and Muslims, sadly).
More broadly, the decision to continue on with a Harper approach that’s a bit shinier and happier makes sense.
The Conservative Party isn’t in pieces, or in obvious need of an extensive overhaul. It has a healthy 99 seats in the House of Commons. Cash is pouring into to the party’s coffers. And Justin Trudeau’s Liberals aren’t exactly nailing government, despite their continued advantage in the polls.
By selecting Andrew Scheer, one could argue Conservatives are confident the Trudeau government will never meet its potential, and that Canadians will be ready to consider another option in two years’ time, even if that option is decidedly vanilla.
It doesn’t necessarily matter that most Canadians couldn’t pick Scheer out of a lineup at this stage of the proceedings. Indeed, one of the benefits of subtracting the word “interim” from the front of “Conservative leader” is that the choice for Canadians in 2019 is now clear. It’s no longer Trudeau against nothing; it’s Trudeau against someone real.
The Liberals know this, which is why they will quickly begin with the hard work of framing the next choice. The early attacks during the Conservative convention were predicated on a Bernier win, but Liberal strategists will quickly recalibrate, most likely in the direction of presenting Scheer as Harper 2.0.
It’s a simple story, one voters turned off by Harper in 2015 will be open to hearing again.
This is the biggest and best reason for Scheer to open up and adopt some of the policy boldness shown by his fellow leadership contestants. The surest route to party growth is new policy to put in the window.
Pinching third-place leadership candidate Erin O’Toole’s “Kickstart” policy for new graduates could be one. Adopting some of Bernier’s tax reforms could be another. Sadly, a Scheer-led party won’t try for fresh thinking on the environment or carbon taxation, which will continue to limit the Conservatives’ appeal for younger voters.
A heavy lean on fiscal responsibility is also a given, and something that will be supported by the Conservative coalition and persuadable voters worried about Trudeau’s profligacy.
Holding Trudeau to account in the House of Commons on this and other matters will be the immediate glue that binds together all factions of the Conservative Party. They might have voted for different potential leaders, but they all dislike the one Canada last chose.
Having someone of the same generational cohort as the Prime Minister will help. And while Scheer isn’t as charismatic as Trudeau, or a social-media supernova like him either, he is closer than Trudeau to the pressures faced by Canadian families in this slow-growth world.
This authenticity, channelled properly, could be a compelling proposition to voters tired of the slick self-promotion of a government short on accomplishment. Especially if the economy deteriorates appreciably.
Congratulations, Conservatives. You survived the leadership race. Your reward? More hard work.
Andrew MacDougall is a London-based columnist and commentator. He was a director of communications to Stephen Harper.