Your guide to the 2020 federal Conservative leadership race

ANALYSIS: The federal Conservatives are a unique coalition of disparate interest groups. Which candidate can bring them all together?
By Steve Paikin - Published on Jan 06, 2020
The Conservative Party of Canada contains big and strong factions that seem to have little in common with one another. (Michael Bell/CP)

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It never ceases to amaze me how cruel and fickle politics can be.

You already know that Conservative leader Andrew Scheer won the most votes (although not the most seats) in the federal election last October.

But did you also know that the 6.15 million votes he earned was the second-highest vote total of any Conservative party leader ever — exceeded only by Brian Mulroney’s 6.2 million votes in his 1984 historic landslide?

And, yet, Scheer is on his way out, and the race to replace him is on and will be decided at a leadership election in Toronto on June 27.

The coalition of interests that is the Conservative Party of Canada is unlike that of other parties, inasmuch as there are big and strong factions that seem to have little in common with one another. And, yet, even in the face of a majority-government loss to Justin Trudeau’s Liberals in 2015, and a second (albeit minority) loss to Trudeau in 2019, that coalition put together by former prime minister Stephen Harper has essentially held. That is no small achievement, given that most Conservative party losses throughout history have been followed by party members turning on one another and destroying that coalition. (The best example of this was in the lead-up to the 1993 federal election, which saw alienated Western Canadians create the Reform party, irate Quebec nationalists form the Bloc Québécois, and moderate Red Tories reduced to two seats. When Conservatives blow the thing up, they really blow the thing up.)

So it’s a minor miracle that Harper’s much-vaunted “base” of tax-fighting, more-religious-than-not, rural, economic conservatives has survived consecutive losses. The question is, who can keep that base together — and maybe grow it a bit more to become more competitive with the Liberals?

If any consensus emerged from last October’s election, it’s that it won’t be a social-conservative candidate. The ardent pro-life, anti-abortion, anti-sex-education, anti-cannabis stance is simply a non-starter with too many Canadians. But “SoCons” are an important part of the Conservative base because they show up, organize, donate, and demand (and get) respect from the other elements of the Conservative coalition.

“They’re the fuel in the tank that’s always there to start the engine” is how Chad Rogers, a longtime Conservative backroom adviser, now founding partner at Crestview Strategy, puts it.

The SoCons will be a factor at the leadership election — they always are. In 2017, MP Brad Trost was the candidate of “The Morality Caucus,” and he lasted 11 of 13 rounds, ultimately finishing a strong fourth. This time, well-known anti-sex-ed activist Queenie Yu is thought to be kicking the tires on a leadership bid.

Angry and frustrated Western Canadians will surely have a candidate as well. Unfortunately for this group, the most talented and popular options have already taken themselves out of the race: Jason Kenney (because he became premier of Alberta last April) and former Saskatchewan premier Brad Wall.

So who will be this group’s champions? Speculation currently focuses on Brian Jean, former leader of the Alberta Wildrose Party, and Calgary MP Michelle Rempel Garner.

However, if I did hear one consistent thing from Conservatives in the aftermath of the last federal election, it was that the next leader ought to be from east of Manitoba and much more comfortable dealing with urban and LGBTQ issues.

That would point to former cabinet minister, now lawyer, Peter MacKay or to Erin O’Toole, the current MP for Durham. As the last-ever leader of the old Progressive Conservative Party of Canada, MacKay’s moderately conservative chops are well established. And O’Toole finished third in the 2017 leadership race. With Scheer departing and second-place finisher Maxime Bernier having quit to set up his own party, is O’Toole the likely inheritor of the support of this group of moderate, pragmatic Red Tories?

Next question: If the party is looking for a tough, occasionally brutal, brass-knuckles leader who will take no prisoners and hit pro-conservative themes hard (in other words, the next generation’s Stephen Harper), who’s your candidate?

Answer: Carleton MP Pierre Poilievre.

Next question: Does Poilievre have an act beyond playing the enfant terrible of Parliament? And does the fact that he has the same political background as Scheer — an MP since he was 25 and precious little “real life” experience — pose a problem?

If it does, that leads to the final faction we’ll focus on here: Quebec. Quebec is a distinct society in Canada and within the Conservative party, inasmuch as candidates from la belle province only have to be “Conservative enough.” So, if he becomes a candidate, look for former premier Jean Charest — who, more than two decades ago, led the old PC party as a moderate — to trumpet how much more economically conservative he became when heading the Quebec government. And, if Charest ultimately takes a pass, watch for Quebec MP Gérard Deltell to dive in. Both could easily pass the Tout le Monde en Parle test — in other words, appear on that supremely popular Quebec television talk show and “come off looking culturally hip, rather than sounding like the House of Commons translation service,” as Crestview’s Chad Rogers quips.

With a short six-month runway before the leadership vote, decisions about who’s in and who’s out will no doubt happen quickly. Not only that: look for the party’s organizing committee to require a big-money entry fee in order to keep the contestants to serious contenders only. Organizers seem to agree that they don’t want a repeat of the circus that having 14 contestants created last time.

It’s 2020: time for Conservatives to figure out who can keep the base happy — and bring in disaffected Liberals and independents as well.

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