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The takedown of Andrew Scheer

Partisan warfare, ruthless tactics, friendly fire. What really happened in the final weeks before the resignation of the leader of the opposition.

Andrew Scheer is not a man who wears emotion easily or obviously in public.

When he speaks, even when the topic isn’t his personal beliefs on social issues or the viability of his leadership—queries that would make anyone react defensively—Scheer often seems guarded and intensely interior. For all his be-dimpled affability, there is often the sense of a house with its curtains drawn about the man.

So when the Leader of the Official Opposition rose in the House of Commons on Dec. 12, looking bereft and obviously weepy, it stopped the clock.

Minutes before, Scheer’s caucus had learned the news he was about to convey, and they offered an extended ovation as he rose on a point of privilege and then struggled to get his face and voice in order.

When he first stepped into the House in 2004 as an MP, he began, he’d been 25 years old, not long out of university, newly married with his first child on the way. Some people might insist he still had maturing to do, but in many ways, he’d grown up in that green chamber, even as he became father to five children in life outside it, he said.

Then Scheer announced “one of the most difficult decisions I have ever had to make.” He was resigning as leader of the Conservative Party of Canada and asking the national council to start planning the race for his successor immediately.

The crux of it, in Scheer’s statement to the House and in the version of events related by those close to him afterward, was this: the job demanded absolutely everything from the person who held it, and Scheer simply could not give that anymore. “In order to chart the course ahead, this party, this movement needs somebody who can give 100 per cent to the efforts,” he said. “And after some conversations with my kids, my loved ones, I felt it was time to put my family first.”

If that was the thing pulling him out of the job and toward the rest of his life, there had also been plenty of very public pushing since election night. And there was another issue, about to burst into view, that may have provided a sharp and deliberate shove, too.

“My only ask to my fellow Conservatives is this: let’s stay united,” Scheer said near the closing of his remarks in the House.

It was the fifth time he’d used the word “united” in his speech. But it was already far too late for that plea to be heeded.

Ultimately, Scheer’s exit might have wrapped around family, but his final weeks in the job had been marred by partisan warfare, ruthless tactics and friendly fire—all aimed at him.

***

There had been Conservative frustration about the election outcome on Oct. 21, and then there was the raw shock.

The party’s data was faulty, and its internal projections on election day pointed to a 20-seat advantage. No one was prepared for defeat; there was a transition team in place in case of victory, but no meeting scheduled to deal with a loss. Everyone went underground for a few days to lick their wounds, and by the time they surfaced, the anti-Scheer forces had mobilized and the narrative was set.

On Oct. 22, a veteran senior Conservative sent a Maclean’s journalist a note indicating that Scheer was in serious trouble.

“As you know, submarine warfare during the Cold War was never in the headlines because it’s totally below the surface. No one could see it except the people involved in it,” the source observed. “A leadership review campaign is the same.”

They pointed to the “declaration of war” on CBC’s election broadcast the previous night from Kory Teneycke, who served as Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s director of communications and ran Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s 2018 campaign. “Doug Ford has been more popular than Andrew Scheer throughout the entire election campaign in Ontario,” Teneycke said on air, also arguing that because he’d lost the election, Scheer should run again for the leadership to ensure he had a fresh mandate.

The senior Tory found this “odd.”

“The whole point of submarine warfare is stealth and surprise,” they said. “Why would you telegraph your submarine plans?”

Other subs were surfacing.

READ MORE: Andrew Scheer’s would-be successors

Just over a week later, former Harper cabinet minister Peter MacKay opined that Scheer’s positions on social issues “hung around his neck like a stinking albatross” and losing this election “was like having a breakaway on an open net and missing the net.” Melissa Lantsman—who ran Ford’s war room in 2018—and Jamie Ellerton—a member of Scheer’s election communications team—wrote an editorial arguing that Scheer’s “visible discomfort” answering questions about LGBT people was a big and backwards problem that extended to the party at large.

TV panels and column inches were stacked with various Conservatives and strategists unpacking the election results—which saw the Liberals reduced to a minority of 157 seats and the Tories rise to 121 seats, though they were virtually shut out in urban areas—asking what exactly went wrong and whether Scheer could survive the harsh glare of the post-mortem examination.

The party tapped another prominent former Harper cabinet minister, John Baird, to conduct an external review of the campaign. Teneycke, meanwhile, co-founded Conservative Victory, a non-profit group aimed at ousting Scheer through what it billed as a grassroots effort, which was perhaps more astroturf-y in nature. Teneycke says his involvement is political and not a personal attack on Scheer, whom he’s known for decades.

“I don’t have some hate for this guy. There’s no great rivalry or animosity. Despite liking him personally, there’s a greater good,” he said in an interview. “I have a view as to how we should change leaders and what that process should be after one loses an election campaign, and that view is driven by my desire to see the Conservative Party victorious.”

On Nov. 15, Brock Harrison, Scheer’s communications director, sent a memo to Scheer, campaign manager Hamish Marshall and chief of staff Marc-André Leclerc, describing the weeks since the election as a time of “malaise and inaction.” He outlined issues with the perception of Scheer: “Bottom line, if we don’t strengthen the Leader’s perceived weaknesses, we are doomed in April.”

In the memo, obtained by Maclean’s, Harrison recommended a shake-up of senior staff, the leadership team and shadow cabinet to demonstrate that Scheer was broadening his inner circle, along with a big policy idea, a speaking tour, an LGBTQ task force and a climate change policy review.

Scheer evidently took the memo to heart, firing Leclerc and Harrison a week later, after denying them the option of resigning, as both asked to do several times. “Following the election results, and as we gear up to hold Justin Trudeau to account in this new minority Parliament, I felt it was important to make changes at the Office of the Leader of the Official Opposition,” Scheer wrote in a letter to staff. “These decisions are never easy, especially when they involve friends.”

Because his party lost the election, Scheer would face an automatic leadership review at the convention in April. According to party rules, all he needed to stick around was the endorsement of 50 per cent plus one of the delegates, but in practice, previous leaders had set the bar much higher in order to buttress the legitimacy of their leadership.

On Nov. 30, a Maclean’s journalist received a message from a Conservative with knowledge of the machinations behind the party’s fundraising arm: “Scheer needs to f–king go and go right now. The board and inner circle are telling him he’s toast and he just won’t listen.”

Even while the sounds of partisan knife sharpening grew louder by the day, Scheer maintained publicly that he was fully committed. “I am listening to you and learning what we need to change in order to deliver the victory we need next time,” he told the annual meeting of Alberta’s United Conservative Party in Calgary at the end of November. “We cannot give up the fight now.”

But privately, Scheer had already told a close friend weeks earlier that he wasn’t sure he could hold on. The toll was too big on his family and especially his wife, Jill, he said, and he wasn’t sure he could mount a campaign to defend himself that was as robust as the one taking shape against him.

READ MORE: Conservatives after Scheer: the revolution eats its own

One evening in the first week of December, Scheer returned home to Stornoway, the residence of the leader of the Official Opposition, and got into a conversation with his 14-year-old son, Thomas. Thomas was the baby on the way that Scheer would reference in his resignation speech on the floor of the House the following week, and then describe in the present tense as “all arms and legs” and about to surpass his dad in height.

Talking to his son at home that night, Scheer realized how much he’d missed and was still missing. He would tell people later that his decision to resign clicked into place in that moment. But to those close to him, it would seem that Scheer had been weighing things out ever since the election, and the scales finally tipped.

“Looking at it and looking at the impact on his family, he honestly felt that it had been two years of giving 100 per cent to something that wasn’t his family, could he keep doing that?” a close advisor said. “And I think more than anything else, it was the fact that he was at home and spending more time with them that made him realize that.”

***

A few days later, Teneycke told Baird—whose review of the election campaign was still ongoing—that he had heard Conservative Fund Canada, the party’s fundraising body and pursestrings, was paying private school fees for Scheer’s children. The powerful seven-member board of the Fund includes Harper and his longtime ally Irving Gerstein, the party fundraiser Harper put in the Senate.

The following day, Dec. 9, Maclean’s contacted Teneycke to ask about rumours circulating on that same issue. Teneycke said he had recently heard from people he called “whistle-blowers” that the party was picking up the tab for Scheer’s children’s schooling. “People with firsthand knowledge blew the whistle on it because they thought it was not defensible,” he said in a later interview.

Maclean’s contacted several party officials, including a member of the Fund’s board. That person, speaking off the record, was categorical: No, the party was not paying for Scheer’s children to attend private school. “That is not true. That’s not true,” the board member said. “I’m just surprised that would be out there.”

The board member said it was the first they had heard of such a thing, and that the board would have had to approve such an expenditure. Other officials contacted all said they knew nothing about it.

Teneycke later told Maclean’s he believed that if party members learned that their donations were being used to pay for the school fees, that would displease donors and increase pressure on Scheer to step down. “The money that donors are giving to the party, the average of which is less than $100 per donation, it’s a sacred trust,” he said. “People are giving the party the money on the understanding it’s being used to subsidize an election campaign, not to subsidize the lifestyle of the leader.”

Party brass would ultimately defend the funding as being entirely normal and signed off by the proper people, but the damage had been done.

On Dec. 11, the day before the story broke, Scheer spoke to a close advisor. They had tried to connect the previous day but missed each other, so the advisor believes Scheer had made up his mind by Dec. 10 to step down, because that’s exactly what Scheer told him when they finally got in touch.

Another close Scheer supporter described the sequence of events this way: “Scheer decided, and then he was crushed.”

However, other close observers believe that while Scheer may have made up his mind to go at some near-future date after Christmas, the expense story imminently breaking on Dec. 12 gave him the final shove out the door and hastened his timeline. Maclean’s requested an interview or comment from Scheer, but did not receive either.

READ MORE: Andrew Scheer’s resignation speech in the House of Commons

The same day Scheer told his advisor of his decision—a Wednesday—longtime Tory MP Peter Kent filmed a video intended to shore up support for Scheer in response to the “street justice” he believed rival leadership campaigns and figures from the Harper government were trying to dole out.

“A clutch of self-serving consultants and lobbyists, looking for revenues that a leadership election would generate, who won’t say who’s bankrolling their efforts, are trying to steamroll over that process,” Kent read from a script he wrote for the video, referring to the leadership review. “They don’t have a candidate to offer. They are rebels without a cause.”

Indeed, weaponized expense scandals have a history in the present-day Conservative party.

When Harper didn’t like Reform Party Leader Preston Manning’s choice of Rick Anderson as the party’s campaign director, Harper “was prepared to air his objections in the media,” Manning wrote in his memoir, Think Big. In 1994, two Globe and Mail columnists, “fed by a disgruntled caucus member,” wrote columns asserting that Manning was abusing his parliamentary expense account. Harper, by this time an elected member of the Reform caucus and evidently disgruntled, soon went public with his complaints. The Reform leader was dejected and humiliated.

Later, when Harper was its leader, the united Conservative Party often used opponents’ expenses, even when authorized by the prevailing rules, as a way to depict them as out of touch. In early 2014, when the former Army commander Andrew Leslie announced he would run for the Liberals, reporters learned he had claimed $72,000 in expenses to move from one Ottawa house to another.

***

At 4 p.m. on the day before Scheer would resign, Matt Jeneroux had a 15-minute meeting with him to talk about his portfolio as associate shadow minister of infrastructure and communities. They also talked about the general path forward, and Jeneroux didn’t get any indication of what was to come.

However, since the election, Scheer had seemed off to him. “He didn’t seem to have that kind of passion in him and I kind of left that meeting having that feeling,” Jeneroux said. “But I thought maybe he just needs to rest.”

Behind closed doors, word was getting around about the private school fees. The board member queried by Maclean’s had asked for clarification, and Teneycke told Robert Fife, Ottawa bureau chief of the Globe, about the expenses. Also on Wednesday, Fife made inquiries with Cory Hann, the party’s communications director, who in turn asked the party’s executive director, Dustin van Vugt, for guidance on how to reply.

Teneycke believed the matter was soon to go public; at a retirement party that evening in Ottawa for CTV’s Don Martin, he spoke with a number of journalists about it.

The next morning, Dec. 12, Saskatchewan Senator Denise Batters, a friend of Scheer’s who had been involved in his leadership bid and was now helping conduct a search for his new chief of staff, was attending a meeting of the Senate’s board of internal economy when she got an urgent text telling her to come to the leader’s office.

“I was surprised, yet not surprised,” she said of Scheer telling her he was going to resign; she’d sensed that this was a “strong possibility” in the preceding weeks. “He did not make the decision to resign lightly and he wrestled with that decision for weeks,” she added.

The Conservatives had their regular caucus meeting the day before, but an extra one was called for Thursday to discuss USMCA. A handful of MPs spoke during the briefing on the free trade agreement—yet to be passed by the U.S. House of Representatives at that point—and there was a round of questions.

Scheer offered a few remarks on the agreement, but then came to the point and announced that he was resigning as leader. He talked about his family at length, with his wife, Jill, and senior staff including principal secretary Kenzie Potter looking on.

More or less simultaneously with the news of Scheer’s resignation, Global News broke the story of the party paying his family’s expenses. At 11:50 a.m., Ottawa bureau chief Mercedes Stephenson reported that board members had demanded Scheer’s resignation after learning about the school fees.

Kent’s fiery video in support of Scheer was still in post-production, never to see the light of day. “I feel guilty that I didn’t put it out earlier,” he said.

Immediately after he spoke to caucus, Scheer and the rest of his MPs filed into the House, where he rose on a point of privilege to share the same news with the House of Commons.

“This was a decision I came to after many long, hard conversations with friends and family over the past two months since the election campaign,” he said, with red-rimmed eyes. “This has been an incredible challenge for our family to keep up with the pace required to lead a caucus and party into a general election.”

Later, an insider reflected, “There was probably no bigger look of relief on his face than the day he finally got that off his chest and admitted, ‘I’m out.’ ”

Another insider saw the writing on the wall since election night. “Dealing with him over the last two months, you can tell there is zero fire in his belly.” Scheer had people around him who wanted to go to the mat for him, but he couldn’t ask them to do that and “continue the facade that he was 100 per cent in.”

The insider adds, “I get that it sounds a little bit sexier to say the school fees broke the back on him, but that guy’s back has broken since Oct. 22. It was just a matter of time.”

***

Within an hour of Scheer resigning, at least one group of Conservative staffers were feeling distinctly un-tearful. In a building within the parliamentary precinct that contains MPs’ offices, by 12:30 p.m., a group was one-third of the way into a cake that featured “¡Viva LA REVOLUCION!” piped hastily on top in orange icing. A source who showed a photo of the cake to Maclean’s was nearly positive that no members of Scheer’s office were involved.

Just before 2 p.m., van Vugt, the party’s executive director, sent out a statement explaining that “as is the normal practice” in politics, the party offered to cover some of the costs associated with Scheer becoming leader. “Shortly after Mr. Scheer was elected leader, we had a meeting where I made a standard offer to cover costs associated with moving his family from Regina to Ottawa,” he wrote. “This includes a differential in schooling costs between Regina and Ottawa. All proper procedures were followed and signed off on by the appropriate people.”

Maclean’s went back to the board member who had assured the magazine that the party was not paying the family’s school fees. “This expense was hidden from us at the board,” the board member said. “I’m beyond furious about it. But we didn’t know about it. We certainly were never asked to approve it, which I would not have. The leader did the right thing today.”

Maclean’s asked Scheer to clarify the issue of the school fees, but he declined.

Around 3:30 pm, Scheer gathered his staff in the Office of the Leader of the Opposition. “There were a lot of tears,” a source told Maclean’s. “We were sort of joking, the staff has been telling Andrew not to smile because you have to look serious, have gravitas. Now he can just let it out and smile to his heart’s content.”

Shortly after, caucus called an emergency meeting and voted unanimously to keep Scheer in place as leader until someone else was chosen.

By that evening, MP Erin O’Toole, attending a Christmas party in Toronto along with Ford and a cadre of Ontario cabinet ministers, was telling people he would run to replace Scheer.

The next day, van Vugt was fired. Multiple reports said that Harper and the board of the Fund were behind his ouster, designed to quell backlash among party donors and grassroots members. To Team Scheer, and to van Vugt’s generation of Conservative staffers, his firing seemed unfair, unnecessary and constitutionally questionable; according to the party constitution, the board doesn’t have the power to fire staff, but they do cut the cheques, so van Vugt realized he had to go.

But many Conservatives were angered: Why should van Vugt, widely regarded as a straight-as-an-arrow loyal soldier, have to wear this?

Soon after, van Vugt left on a family vacation, and he did not respond to inquiries from journalists, but friends say he has been emphatic that Gerstein was aware of the arrangement, and that it was worked out with principal secretary Kenzie Potter, Scheer and Gerstein not long after Scheer became leader. “Him and Irving and Andrew had sat down and said, ‘What do you need, boss? You’re the new leader. How do we make your life as easy as possible for you to do this job [so] that we win the next election?’ ” says someone briefed on the events.

In a statement to Maclean’s, Gerstein said the only meeting between the Fund and Scheer took place on June 6, 2017, in his parliamentary office. In attendance were Gerstein, Louis Leger, chair of the audit committee, Scheer and Potter. “The Fund indicated its support for Mr. Scheer and that financial requests for his election were welcome. Not one request was ever made by Mr. Scheer or his representatives either formally or informally to the Fund.”

An insider says Scheer had always been extraordinarily sensitive about his children’s schooling and worried that a journalist would dig into the issue. At the time, the source thought this was about the strict doctrine of the private Catholic school, but they now believe the cost and source of funding were a factor. It remains unclear exactly how much money was spent on the school fees.

***

In the minds of many Scheer critics, the school fees are closely linked to what they see as the mortal sins of Scheer and his team during the election campaign: bad judgment and communication. The school fees, his views on social issues like same-sex marriage and abortion, his dual Canadian-American citizenship, the fact that he was never a licensed insurance broker: to some observers, what all of these issues have in common is a failure of the Scheer camp to think carefully about how things would look on the outside, and to proactively disclose them or have effective ways to communicate about them once they became known.

Marshall, who ran Scheer’s campaign, says, “I did a terrible job of managing expectations,” and he believes Scheer was ultimately a victim of that.

Trudeau is such a polarizing figure that the people who really loathe him—who all vote Tory—simply cannot fathom how anyone could vote for him, Marshall says. So beating Trudeau in October seemed like a cakewalk to those people, and when it didn’t happen, that meant someone must have profoundly screwed up.

“Our base could not believe that anybody with a right mind could vote for Trudeau, and as a result, they expected that beating him would be reasonably straightforward, where there was never any indication that it was going to be reasonably straightforward,” Marshall says. “People expected us to talk about Trudeau the way they talk about Trudeau, and that everybody would vote the same way. And we didn’t win, so it must be that Andrew didn’t deliver the message on Trudeau that they wanted.”

Meanwhile, people close to Harper told journalists he was furious about the revelations about the school fees, in particular the public explanation from van Vugt. “The statement that went out saying that everything was approved caused a small nuclear explosion to occur,” says a source familiar with his thinking.

And van Vugt has come to be widely seen as a scapegoat. If he believed the arrangement was approved by his bosses, Gerstein and Scheer, “I could see how he would come to the conclusion everything was kosher,” says an insider privy to details.

Others in the party feel unhappy about the underbussing of van Vugt. “Myself and many other Conservatives were surprised that Dustin was terminated, as he had always been a fair, honest and trustworthy executive director,” said Bert Chen, a national councillor based in Ottawa.

That other senior Conservative who emailed a Maclean’s journalist just hours after the polls closed in October offered a reminder about the brutal campaign that went on behind the scenes of the leadership review at the 2005 Conservative convention in Montreal, in which Harper decided he needed 80 per cent endorsement to solidify his leadership.

In that submarine battle, he got what he wanted, but not without cost. “A surprising number of the submarine captains and admirals are dead, actually,” the senior Tory observed. “But submarine warfare outlasts submariners.”

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