Andrew Scheer and the Conservative Party’s future

His wink-and-a-nod Conservatism will not be super-impressive to a nation of distracted voters. The job ahead is daunting.

These things used to happen on the floor of delegated conventions: a party’s accredited delegates would seem to be heading in one direction, only to stop, stare one another in the eye, and pivot. The Progressive Conservatives in 1976, putting the old-school populist Claude Wagner on top of three ballots only to crown an unsteady new-generation man, Joe Clark, on the fourth. The Liberals in 2006: Ignatieff and Rae, Ignatieff and Rae, then Stéphane Dion roaring up the inside. We told one another such hijinx were impossible any more, with almost all the ballots cast in advance.

Maybe. But this odd Conservative race ended so close that perhaps it’s possible to wonder whether, in the campaign’s last few days, just enough last-minute voters gave Maxime Bernier one last look—and turned away.

His stance against supply management in agriculture, which would have won Bernier a landslide victory if only newspaper columnists and economists were voting, cost him bragging rights in his native Quebec early on: in January four Quebec Conservative MPs announced they were supporting Andrew Scheer because he supported supply management and he just might beat Bernier.

READ MORE: Andrew Scheer’s victory speech takes aim at Trudeau

In the campaign’s closing days, my colleague John Geddes read Bernier’s policy on health care and realized it would mean the effective end of the Canada Health Act. Bernier’s own staff finally acknowledged as much. There may come a day when a political party wants to pick a fight over health care, but to many Conservatives it was a nasty surprise to discover the day might be so close.

And so on. Bernier’s staff seemed a touch eager to get the victory parade started. Bernier’s Friday night speech at the “leadership event,” next door to a dress-up party at a Toronto airport-strip convention rent-a-hall, fell flat. Bernier had just about zero appeal to the party’s assorted family-values constituencies. None of these problems, by itself, would sink a cocky, dynamic candidate with bold ideas on serious issues. But each was like a sleeve of ball bearings injected into the shoes of a good runner in what would turn out to be a 13-ballot marathon.

So get to know Andrew Scheer. Every year when he was Speaker of the Commons, he’d welcome organizers and winners of the Maclean’s Parliamentarian of the Year awards for lunch in the Speaker’s chambers. He’d make sure I was seated on his right and he’d spend the hour cheerfully grilling me for political gossip and analysis. He’s deeply political, deeply partisan, and maybe a little young for the Reagan-Thatcher instincts that are so deeply ingrained in him.

He was one of the first members of the Conservative caucus to support Brexit, though I’m quite sure at least two-thirds of his caucus colleagues agreed with him, most quietly. It’s automatic when you get all your Europe news from the Telegraph and the Spectator. He had few clear, memorable policies—his victory will be seen, with some justification, as the choice of a party that has decided not to be too clear or too memorable in what it proposes—but he did get some mileage, in the home stretch, from a promise to withhold “federal funding” from universities that “don’t protect free speech.”

READ MORE: Andrew Scheer’s path to leadership of the Conservative Party

He meant universities that don’t let, say, Ann Coulter speak. He will learn, quickly, to be careful what he wishes for. There are a hell of a lot more universities in Canada where student groups celebrate Israeli Apartheid Day than campuses wondering when Ann Coulter will pop by. Does Scheer intend to protect Israeli Apartheid Day by withdrawing health-care research money?

But he will have plenty of time to figure out the answer to that one. The campaign is two-ish years away. The Liberals were so eager to run against Max Bernier they spent the weekend doing so, using social media and jokey props to remind everyone that Bernier was once kicked out of Stephen Harper’s cabinet for poor judgment. Scheer, in contrast, was elected Speaker by his colleagues, is a consistently strong question-period performer, and brings with him some of Rona Ambrose’s cheerful mien. His preference for leaving third rails untouched—supply management, medicare—means he makes a smaller target than Bernier would have, though have no fear, the Liberals will still find reasons to take their potshots.

He pretty desperately needs a platform. A Conservative MP I know, who didn’t publicly support any candidate, told me he’d be giving his first ballot spot to Scheer because “I’ve had scotch with him in the Speaker’s chamber, I know what he thinks.” Most Canadians haven’t, and the wink-and-a-nod Conservatism Scheer used to rally an extremely slow-building majority within a party of ideologues will not be super-impressive to a nation of distracted voters who do not, as of today, particularly despise Justin Trudeau.

So Scheer will have to operate at two tempos, in two modes. This week in the House of Commons he can be cheerful, cherubic, Dad-jokey and sharp-tongued as he takes the daily battle to Trudeau. But over the next several months he needs to put real meat on the bones of his Conservatism. The job ahead is daunting. Since Confederation, how many prime ministers have come to office with a majority, only to lose the next election? Two: Alexander Mackenzie and R.B. Bennett. Every other PM who got there with a majority on their first try was invited by voters to stick around the next time. “Throw the bums out” is a sentiment that takes time to build. “I’ve got a better idea” offers better chances. If Scheer has better ideas. Up to him now to show us if he does.


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