It’s an eternal truth of politics that every victory is only the start of a new fight. “There is renewed hope for Canada, starting today,” Andrew Scheer told thousands of Conservatives on Saturday at a rental hall near Toronto’s Pearson Airport. “I’m here to tell you that the pain and hardship the Trudeau Liberals are causing Canadians is just temporary.”
The young MP from Regina was offering his own person as the solution to any hardship Canadians might feel they have suffered at Justin Trudeau’s hands. “There is hope because Conservatives are united,” Scheer said. “Because we are positive, because we are strong, because we have principled Conservative values and because we all work together.” The election fight of his life lay ahead. “Let’s get started.”
The “united” part was the most interesting element of his remarks, which were otherwise devoted to a series of broadsides against the hated Liberal Prime Minister who had ended a decade of Conservative power. It was probably true that Conservatives, exhausted after an endless campaign, were ready to be united for a while. But it was a close-run thing: the afternoon’s events had included 13 ballots, the most ever for a major party’s leadership race. Fewer than one party member in four had supported Scheer on the first ballot; not until the 12th had his support passed one-third of the total.
Fending off a dozen rivals is a genuine triumph, and Scheer had put more skill and organizational smarts than most observers recognized into his slow-building victory. Ahead lay the gruelling work of consolidating that victory, integrating his rivals into its command structure, and establishing his imprint as only the second-ever leader of a party Stephen Harper built and defined.
But what became clear in the campaign’s last days was that the 2017 leadership vote was a kind of referendum on the future of the party. And at the same time, on its past. One candidate led in every poll for months and on every ballot except the last: Maxime Bernier, a starkly libertarian advocate of limited government, free markets and limited regulation. Bernier was the candidate of disaffection with Stephen Harper’s years as prime minister—not among the Conservatives’ opponents, who thought Harper had gone much too far, but among Conservative stalwarts who thought Harper had not gone nearly far enough.
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Against Bernier, a vast and varied field. Among them, a couple of joke candidates who ended up not mattering much—the TV huckster Kevin O’Leary, the weathervane career Tory Kellie Leitch flying a Donald Trump flag of convenience. And a few who thought the Harper legacy, plus or minus a few more happy faces, was a pretty good path on which to continue: Lisa Raitt, Erin O’Toole and Andrew Scheer.
Bernier’s task was to make radical change look like the best way for Conservatives to be true to their hearts. For the others, the task was simply to get a little air in a ludicrously overcrowded field of candidates, and eventually to emerge as the next standard-bearer for Conservatism as Canadians in this century have known it.
The result was far too close for clarity. Scheer won fair and square, and he won the old-fashioned way: by playing smart and running hard. Bernier grew steadily more willing to let his bold positions substitute for less glamorous organizational work on the ground. A few of his errors in the home stretch are breathtaking. But of course his mistakes would glow neon-bright in hindsight. That he got as far as he did is still a triumph for a very different kind of politics.
It’s pointless to try to predict how the party will fare under Scheer. But before the inevitable bustle of daily news overtakes our newest national party leader, it’s worth recalling how he got this far. To tell that story right, we should go at least briefly back a decade, to the Conservative Party of Canada’s first leader and strongest personality, Stephen Harper.
The eternal test of Canadian conservatism is whether it can last long enough to matter. For decades the results had been muddled at best, discouraging at worst.
In 1958 John Diefenbaker won the biggest parliamentary majority in history. Five years later he was out, and his bickering party would not see power for another 16 years. Brian Mulroney won another huge victory in 1984. Within three years the Progressive Conservatives’ Prairie right wing was in open revolt, and its Quebec nationalist fringe was not long to follow. When Mulroney finally folded his tent in 1993, 13 more years of squabbling and defeat awaited Conservatives.
Stephen Harper hoped to escape that fate—not for himself, he knew he’d lose one day, but for Canadian conservatism as a major force in federal politics. Sure, Harper wanted to last a long time as prime minister. It’s a fun job. But he was no mere careerist: he knew his success would be measured, to a great extent, by what happened after he left office. His predecessors had left smoking craters behind him. He wanted to leave a healthy party, united, competitive, flush with cash and able to win—not every time, but reasonably often.
For a Canadian Conservative this counted as mad ambition. Few Western democracies know no more formidable winning machine than the Liberal Party of Canada. In Harper’s entire lifetime before he became a federal party leader, there were 12 federal elections. The Liberals had won nine of them.
It was common for Conservatives to ride to power on a wave of public disgust with Liberal excess, screw up big as they rushed to change everything, and ride promptly back out on a wave of nostalgia for the devils voters knew. Common? It seemed dictated by the fates. To change the result, Harper would play a new game, one based on awesome self-control.
It’s not as though Harper didn’t have high ambitions. Give him the only vote and he’d shut down the CBC, shutter regional-development agencies, license private health care and, who knows, maybe nuclear-tip a few warheads. But Harper understood he would never have the only vote. He needed to bring the country along with him.
Because big mouths had sunk Conservative hopes before, no Conservative would speak before clearing and rehearsing his remarks and anticipating their effect. Because Mulroney had picked great battles he couldn’t win, or battles he could only win at punishing political cost, Harper would skip divisive issues in favour of incremental progress. He sidestepped more big fights than he engaged—on abortion, on liberal judges, on corporate welfare, on dairy subsidies. The Conservative Party’s legacy would be the sum of countless small moves.
Not every Conservative liked it. The burden of restraint was easy enough to bear during the five years when the Conservatives had only a minority in the House of Commons. But in 2011 they finally won a majority. Surely they could cut loose now? Surely the revolution had come?
No. Harper’s office sent out the word: discipline and incrementalism had got them this far. They would not be abandoned. Jim Flaherty, his finance minister, introduced the same baby-steps budget at the end of 2011 that he had introduced before that year’s election. It was an insipid pamphlet, devoid of big cuts to spending or taxes, a stand-pat budget. The troops weren’t happy. Conservatives gathered at Hy’s, the downtown Ottawa steakhouse that served as night-shift headquarters for Parliament Hill lifers, after the second budget. The mood was glum. “What did we get a majority for, if this is what we’re going to do with it?” one former Harper cabinet minister said.
Harper would soldier ahead, governing as best he could until he finally lost his fifth and final campaign as a national party leader. But already while he was slogging through the hard times, there was another model available to Conservatives.
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Harper always knew that the threat to a party leader doesn’t always come from opponents across the aisle of Parliament. Often it comes from supposed allies sitting beside or behind him. It was Lucien Bouchard, Mulroney’s Quebec lieutenant, who triggered the Progressive Conservatives’ final ruination by leaving to form the Bloc Québécois. It was Paul Martin who ended Jean Chrétien’s career. Chrétien had undermined John Turner. Turner had made trouble for Pierre Trudeau. Even Stephen Harper, as a young Reform Party MP, had been the biggest headache for the party’s founding leader, Preston Manning.
That’s why when he became a party leader, Harper was always careful to watch his flanks and back. Colleagues who seemed likely to develop independent power and influence soon found their wings clipped. Jim Prentice, the urbane industry minister, had found himself shunted into the environment portfolio, such a Klondike of headaches that in 2010 he had simply quit federal politics rather than endure the hassle.
But there was one set of wings Harper neglected to clip.
At first, Maxime Bernier seemed like a dream minister for the Conservatives: Tall, handsome, a highly sociable divorcé clothes-horse with deeply libertarian convictions. His father had served as a minister in Brian Mulroney’s cabinet; was he a role model? No, Maxime Bernier said, for his father had been “a more conventional politician.”
In 2008 Bernier lost his job in Harper’s cabinet. The proximate cause was carelessness: he had left sensitive documents at the residence of his statuesque girlfriend, Julie Couillard. But Harper was glad to be shut of him. Bernier seemed unwilling to square his ideology with political reality. He didn’t take instruction well. Three long years after the Couillard affair, Bernier would return to cabinet, but only as a lowly junior minister for small business and tourism. The bond between Harper and Bernier stayed broken.
Idle hands, it’s said, are the devil’s playground. Bernier spent more than a year sitting quietly near the curtains in the House of Commons and licking his wounds in the Beauce. Then in early 2010 he began delivering speeches and writing newspaper columns that gladdened the hearts of Conservatives who were tired of waiting.
At the Frontier Centre for Public Policy in Winnipeg, he suggested government spending be capped. “And I’m not saying zero growth adjusted for inflation and population or GDP increase,” he said. “Just zero growth.” His own party was spending deep into deficit to fight the lingering after-effects of the 2009 banking crisis. Bernier’s implied criticism was direct.
At Toronto’s Albany Club, he called for an end to federal cash transfers to the provinces for health care. In another speech, he said deregulation and union-busting would fix the chronic corruption in Quebec’s construction industry. In a letter to La Presse, he questioned the validity of global warming.
“Maxime Bernier for Prime Minister!” a newspaper report at the time quoted a Conservative-friendly blog. “Finally, someone on the government side with the cojones to speak out.”
Still, Bernier was at pains to curb his cojones. Until the end of the Harper era, Bernier made no move against the party’s entrenched leader. It would have been foolish to try, if the thought even occurred. But the Harper legacy was meant to extend after the end of Harper’s career. So when Bernier finally made his move—paying careful heed to protocol, in the course of a normal leadership campaign to which all were invited—he still became a magnet for thousands of Conservatives who figured Harper’s caution had done more to betray true conservatism than to protect it.
In the campaign’s late stages, Bernier’s opponents recognized that even in a crowded field, the strapping Beauceron was polarizing the race. “The central divide in the race,” said Hamish Marshall, Scheer’s campaign manager, “is not Red vs Blues or even so-cons [social conservatives, guided by religious conviction] vs libertarians. It’s people who feel let down by Harper versus those who liked the government.”
“There’s a lot of folks out there who think Harper didn’t govern conservatively enough once he had his majority. They were okay with incrementalism when we had a minority, but wanted that to end with a majority. They are mostly with Max,” though some were with the social-conservative candidates, Brad Trost and Pierre Lemieux, Marshall said. “Everyone else who was broadly satisfied with the Harper government is split among the rest, with Scheer getting the largest portion.”
But that was how things would stand at the end of the long campaign. At the beginning, it seemed the race would be much narrower.
“When we designed this thing, we thought it would be Peter MacKay vs. Jason Kenney,” a senior Conservative Party official told Maclean’s. This would have produced a simpler race than the one the party eventually had. It would also have produced a moment of grave peril for the still-young party.
MacKay was the last elected leader of the Progressive Conservative Party of Canada. He had delivered the party, almost intact, to the new Conservative Party in 2003. He had served as minister of foreign affairs and defence, had managed not to leave any binders anywhere he shouldn’t, and as a relatively red Tory from Nova Scotia, he commanded an autonomous base in both ideology and geography.
For a decade Kenney had been the Conservatives’ chief emissary to immigrant communities. He had brought many thousands of new supporters into the party. Deeply Catholic and far more conservative than MacKay, he was an emissary from the Conservatives’ Reform base in Alberta. The guy who, as a young taxpayers’ advocate, had bullied Ralph Klein into slaying the Alberta deficit through spending cuts. He had a base and a record and thousands of motivated admirers.
The only problem was that the gap between MacKay and Kenney ran down the seam between the old Progressive Conservatives and the old Canadian Alliance. That seam had largely healed, and on most days, the join seemed solid. But if the confrontation between a big-game Tory and a 500-pound Reformer grew acrimonious, as it could hardly fail to do, it was not obvious the party could keep from splitting asunder.
Fortunately neither man showed up for the big fight. MacKay had married in 2011 and had two young children. He was disinclined to get back into the arena unless he could be sure the Conservatives would win power soon. Nobody could be sure of that. He stayed out.
Kenney had another challenge waiting. Division between Alberta’s provincial Conservative party and the further-right Wildrose Party had finally led to an election win for a third party, the Alberta NDP. In May of 2016 Kenney announced he would go home to Alberta to try to unite the provincial Conservatives and Wildrose.
With Kenney and MacKay out, the risk of an existential crisis for the party shrank. So did the star power associated with the race. The first candidates to announce their candidacy seemed like escapees from an island of misfit toys.
There was Kellie Leitch, the former Minister for the Status of Women. Leitch’s shtick was that as a pediatric surgeon, she brought awesome brainpower to a field at which she was an eager-to-learn newcomer, politics. This was at least half fiction. Leitch was indeed a skilled physician, but she had been active in Ontario Conservative politics since she was 14. She was deeply connected in the party’s activist networks, especially in her home province.
Four days after the Conservatives lost the 2015 election, a senior Harper aide told Maclean’s who would be working for Leitch: pollsters Nick Kouvalis and Richard Ciano, who had helped get Rob Ford elected mayor of Toronto, would run the campaign. Andy Pringle, head of the Toronto Police Services Board, would do fundraising. It was a pretty blue-chip staff, locked in early. (Pringle later left Leitch’s campaign.) But through the summer of 2016, Leitch ran on the thinnest of campaign gruel, delivering a string of content-free happy-to-be-here speeches to distracted Tories at corn roasts and county fairs. Government should be more efficient, she’d say. But everyone was saying the same thing.
A day after Leitch announced her candidacy in April, Max Bernier did the same. He alone had strong policy proposals for big change—stripping the CBC of most entertainment programming, for instance, or cancelling federal transfers to the provinces for health care, to be replaced by increased power for the provinces to raise their own taxes. Bernier was shy, his spoken English was shaky, but he drew early support from earnest young Conservatives who believed government’s main effect was to take working Canadians’ money and stifle their freedom. “Manning Centre interns,” one Press Gallery wag dubbed them.
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The field filled quickly. There was Michael Chong, another rare maverick in the tightly disciplined caucus of the government years. He’d given up a cabinet post on a question of principle, and now was proposing a carbon tax to fight climate change. In a party that had crushed the Liberals in 2008 for proposing the same thing, Chong’s stance at least had the virtue of novelty.
There were Brad Trost and Pierre Lemieux, “social conservatives” who wanted the party to talk more openly about abortion. And there was Steven Blaney, a jug-eared and cheerful former cabinet minister from Quebec, all elbows; the Radio-Canada comedy show Infoman, a rough equivalent to the Rick Mercer Report, ran excerpts from his campaign launch without comment because the event was funny enough by itself.
Two of the later entrants were stalwarts of the Harper Conservatives, cheerful and bland. Both had needed coaxing to get into the race. Erin O’Toole came to the Commons in a by-election in 2012. A former Navy helicopter navigator and a lawyer with a long record of activity in Conservative circles, he soon found himself promoted to cabinet as veterans’ affairs minister.
Andrew Scheer had been an MP longer, elected in 2004 with the first crop of candidates from the newly united Conservative Party. A Roman Catholic deacon’s son from Ottawa who had moved to Saskatchewan as a student to be with his future wife, Scheer represented Lorne Nystrom’s former NDP stronghold of Regina Qu’Appelle. Amiable and softspoken, Scheer was also strongly conservative, an admirer of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher.
But Scheer had worked at a distance from the Harper government, because soon after the 2006 election he had been elected Deputy Speaker of the House of Commons, a role that imposed strict non-partisanship. In 2011 he became Speaker at 32, the youngest in the country’s history. It wasn’t until the Trudeau Liberals won in 2015 that Scheer, freed from the Speaker’s chair, revealed himself to be an agile Question Period performer, impish and quick-thinking with the cruel edge that marks the best combatants in that lurid arena.
Hamish Marshall, a former PMO staffer who had made a living as a communications consultant who’d produced websites for many Conservative MPs, would become Scheer’s campaign director. Marshall, bespectacled and boyish, would gain occasional notoriety for his associations with Ezra Levant, the right-wing firebrand who founded the alt-right social-media platform Rebel Media. But Marshall was essentially Levant’s tech help. His own choice to back Scheer marked a willingness to support a consensus candidate of the broad Conservative mainstream rather than one or another of the kamikazes on offer.
When Scheer first thought about getting into the leadership race, in late 2015 or early 2016, there was one major reason to stay out. “At that point, all anybody was talking about was Jason Kenney,” Marshall said.
But as Kenney shifted his focus to Alberta, “a lot of people who would have probably supported Jason moved over to Andrew,” Marshall said.
Eventually, Scheer held a meeting with would-be campaign staffers and supporters to discuss his strengths and weaknesses. He was well-liked by fellow Conservative MPs—especially some who’d been newly elected—thanks to his steady hand as Speaker. He was bilingual. He was friendly. He was also virtually unknown among that great majority of Canadians who don’t follow goings-on in Parliament closely. Unlike a lot of his opponents, he had never held a cabinet post.
With all that to think about, and even as Leitch, Chong and others began to declare their candidacies, Scheer took the summer off. For real.
“Running for the leadership would take a toll on anybody, but it’s even more complicated when you’ve got five kids at home in Regina,” Marshall said. “It took him a long time to decide.”
By August, Scheer was ready to approach caucus colleagues for support for his eventual campaign launch. He found 20 members of the caucus, MPs and senators, willing to back him from the start. Seventeen were from Western Canada. With no James Moore from British Columbia, or Jason Kenney from Alberta, to back, much of the party’s large Western caucus lined up behind Scheer.
As the race advanced, the only candidate who could compete with Scheer for caucus support was O’Toole. There was probably room between them on ideology. O’Toole was from Ontario and had spent a lot of time in Nova Scotia. His Toryism had a redder tinge. But those who liked him, liked him a lot.
One was Melanie Paradis, a veteran Ontario provincial Tory who worked in the Toronto office of the venerable Earnscliffe consulting firm. After the multiple heartbreaks of Ontario Conservatism—leader after leader losing against Dalton McGuinty and then, as if that wasn’t hard enough to take, against Kathleen Wynne—Paradis was in a mood to take a break from politics. Then she saw O’Toole speak at an Empire Club lunch in Toronto. There was something homespun and authentic about this guy, she said.
“I thought, if this guy ever ran, I could go to sleep at night knowing I had supported a really solid person,” she recalled later. “I told him: ‘If you run, I will get you coffee. I don’t care. I just want to be on your team.’” In the end, Paradis was rather higher on the org chart than that, running communications for O’Toole’s campaign.
Over the course of the campaign, O’Toole’s low-key charm would attract a surprising number of prominent Conservatives to support his campaign. They included Gérard Deltell, a veteran TV journalist and Quebec provincial politician. Even though he’d been elected only in 2015, Deltell was considered the unofficial dean of the Quebec Conservative caucus. Another prominent O’Toole supporter was Ed Fast, the former trade minister who, before he entered politics, had enjoyed touring as keyboard player in his daughters’ Christian pop band.
Deltell could have bolstered O’Toole’s prominence in Quebec, but for all his glibness, the MP didn’t have enough of a network on the ground to make much of a difference for O’Toole. And Fast delivered his endorsement as he was recovering from a stroke. He, too, would be in no position to translate support for O’Toole into members’ votes. This was the story of O’Toole’s candidacy: Impressing more and more Conservatives as he went along, but perilously late, and not always in ways that could translate into bankable support.
The long campaign and the increasingly crowded field made it harder and harder for any candidate to grab the spotlight. A senior advisor to one of the candidates, who didn’t want to be named for criticizing the party brass, said more should have been done to thin the field. “With four or five candidates we would have had a proper soul-searching period during the campaign. I think with 13, 14 candidates, all you get is the top line. If you go past one sentence on any given area, you lose people.”
In that long confused middle of the campaign, it was almost inevitable that a Kellie Leitch would happen.
In September her campaign sent out an email testing a series of questions with people who’d shown an interest in her campaign. One suggested that newcomers to Canada be screened for “anti-Canadian values.” The question, simply one option on a questionnaire, provided no detail about how such a thing would be done. But support for the idea, in the abstract, was through the roof among respondents to the mailout.
News of the options leaked to a reporter. That Leitch was testing the notion of screening immigrants was now public knowledge. All that remained was for her to decide whether to run on the plank, or to run away from it. It was not a hard choice. She had gone nowhere in the race’s early days, and would certainly sink into the anonymity to which most of her opponents were consigned if she stayed cautious.
Egged on by Nick Kouvalis, who had helped make Rob Ford a political star, and unhindered by second thoughts, Leitch plunged ahead.
Leitch’s sorties prompted “a bit of a fight for the soul of the party,” Jason Lietaer, a veteran Conservative strategist who was neutral in the leadership race, said later. “Kelly Leitch came out guns blazing with a proposal that many deemed pretty offensive.”
The other brightest star in the Conservative race was, maddeningly, not even in the race for the longest time. Kevin O’Leary was a cheerful bigmouth, big on TV among fans of the entrepreneurial reality show Dragon’s Den. He had never lifted a finger to help the Conservative Party, but he kept hinting that he was considering a run.
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To a party that had lost the 2015 election to a kind of celebrity, Justin Trudeau, the notion had a certain appeal. When another reality-show star Donald Trump managed to win the U.S. presidency in November, the idea picked up steam.
What was the secret of O’Leary’s appeal? “It was transactional,” Jason Lietaer said. You supported O’Leary if you thought O’Leary could win. What he would do with victory was of secondary interest to his bright shiny media impact.
In the end, Leitch’s appeal faded as she failed to provide any details about how her policies would work and her towering self-regard became the most interesting thing about her. O’Leary got in, finally, in January, and then left in April, barely campaigning in the meantime and attending only four of more than a dozen debates among the leadership candidates.
Away from the distracting spotlight that shone on O’Leary and Leitch, there was early evidence of a shakeout in the real race, the Bernier-vs.-the-rest race. And it wasn’t breaking to Bernier’s advantage.
In late October, the National Post reported that Georganne Burke left the Bernier campaign to back Scheer. Who was Georganne Burke? It’s a fair question. She’s the sort of mid-level manager and organizer parties depend on, never a star, always a stalwart. Bernier had clearly thought so, making her his campaign manager until June, then her national fundraising chair.
But it was Burke’s reasons for leaving Bernier that should have constituted a serious warning to the lanky Quebecer. She told the National Post he was neglecting the details of on-the-ground organization. “As far as I could see, maybe the [Bernier] campaign wasn’t a right fit for me. I’m very much a ground organizer, that’s what I do, and I didn’t feel that was the direction the campaign was heading,” she said. “It was more of an air war than a ground war, and I like the ground war.”
Almost despite itself, the race was starting to take some shape. Subtract the distractions—O’Leary and Leitch—and the noble no-hoper, Michael Chong. What was left was Bernier and a bunch of Harper veterans.
“There was a divide among Conservative voters across the country—not necessarily between social and progressive conservatives, but a divide based on how Conservatives felt about Stephen Harper’s majority,” Hamish Marshall, Scheer’s campaign lead, said later.
Scheer’s team noticed a strong contingency who felt Harper’s four years with a majority government was a wasted opportunity to push through a more conservative agenda. This was especially true in Alberta. “They want a leader who will push the limits of conservatism and demand an ideological purity,” Marshall said. “I knew that sentiment was there, but it was bigger than we expected. And that is certainly Bernier’s strength.”
Conservatives had spent a decade winning in Parliament by being on the less crowded side of polarizing questions. It was not ideal for Scheer to have a lot of company on his side of the Harper legacy issue, with Bernier alone on the other. That is normally a losing place to be.
Scheer needed to set his campaign apart from the pack, or otherwise fall into third-tier obscurity. “It’s very easy to ignore a candidate when there’s a million of them running,” Marshall said.
That’s why Scheer came out of the gate with the support of 20 members of the Conservative caucus. “The caucus support was about signalling to membership and the media that he should be taken seriously,” Marshall said. “Andrew also reassured a lot of people that he was a real conservative with his policies. It distinguished him from people who focused more on their resume.”
And the strategy wasn’t to be everyone’s favourite, because in a long day with many rounds of balloting, being their second or third favourite would be almost as good. That posed its own challenges. The Scheer camp needed to offer enough new ideas to get noticed, but not say anything that would shake loose skittish and uncommitted down-ballot support.
“We ran a campaign that wasn’t reactive if someone took a shot at us,” Marshall said. “We didn’t want to alienate anyone’s supporters because we knew we needed it to be second choice and win. There was always a path to victory, but it was never an easy path.”
In January, it got a little easier. Four Quebec MPs, newly elected in 2015, announced they were supporting Scheer instead of the two Quebecers in the race, Bernier and Steven Blaney. It was a shocking upset, a fox-in-the-henhouse raid on Bernier’s home turf.
“We knew we couldn’t win if we ceded Quebec to Bernier,” Marshall said. “We had to be someone who would be a strong second place in Quebec.”
The catalyst for the coup, of course, was Bernier’s policy of dismantling supply management, the Byzantine system of national preference in the dairy and poultry market that has long enjoyed all-party support in Canadian politics. The bold stance, which would reduce grocery bills for millions of ordinary Canadians, made Bernier a darling of newspaper columnists and economists. But in rural ridings that depend on farmers’ votes, a mad scramble to find an anybody-but-Bernier candidate was underway.
Scheer quietly sought the support of four Quebec MPs who couldn’t support Bernier, and couldn’t waste their votes on a guy like Steven Blaney who didn’t have the clout to stop Bernier.
One of the MPs was Luc Berthold, MP for Mégantic-L’Érable in Quebec’s Eastern Townships. “I asked him tough questions and he answered them all in French,” said Berthold. “I had some concern about his position on abortion and gay marriage, and he said he has his personal view but he’ll respect the position members took at the last convention. That convinced me I could support him.”
Berthold didn’t endorse Scheer right away, first taking the time to talk with other Quebec MPs, only to realize that several of them were impressed by Scheer, too. “I thought: Okay, we’ve got a good candidate for this race,” Berthold adds. “He was young. He was inclusive. We called him ‘Monsieur Sourire (Mr. Smile).” Berthold liked how Scheer showed Conservatives didn’t have to be grumpy all the time.
A week before the French-language debate, the four Quebec MPs made their endorsement official. “When we came out and said we support Andrew Scheer—from the West—to be our leader, people were saying, ‘Whoa, what’s happening here?’” Berthold said. “We got him a lot of attention.”
Bernier’s last fumbles came in the home stretch. On April 25, the party revealed that 259,010 members had qualified to vote in the leadership election. It was a staggeringly large number, many tens of thousands larger than almost anyone had expected.
O’Leary’s departure from the race, two days later, was no coincidence. This was, more than ever, a ground game that would depend on sophisticated organizations to get out the vote among this army of party members. O’Leary threw in the towel. But the next steps were crucial in deciding the outcome.
Scrupulously fair, the Conservative Party head office had been sharing updates to party membership lists with all campaigns, so they could bombard members with email pitches and market to them on Facebook. Inexplicably, two senior sources told Maclean’s, the Bernier camp failed for weeks to update its lists to reflect the new and vastly larger voter pool.
“It seems like a fairly rookie mistake,” one veteran Conservative organizer said later. “But the targeting was never updated until weeks after the lists had been distributed. So they were missing literally tens of thousands of potential voters.”
Perhaps the Bernier camp was simply distracted. O’Leary needed a fig leaf for his withdrawal, so he made a great show of throwing his support to Bernier. But his support wasn’t really support so much as it was a headache. Amalgamating campaign staffs, consolidating membership lists, budgeting for a larger campaign organization—in the crucial final weeks of the campaign, the Bernier campaign got lost in process headaches that had nothing to do with the suddenly-even-more-important ground game.
And the O’Leary thing hindered the Bernier campaign in one final way: it made Bernier seem like an ordinary deal-making politician. His positions and O’Leary’s had little in common. For a year, Bernier had run in splendid isolation from the squalid compromises of ordinary politics. Now he was moonlighting as a squalid compromiser.
All of these concerns are inside baseball. They did not turn Bernier from hero to dud. A dozen accomplished political professionals had failed to lay a glove on the coltish kid from the Beauce. But all of these errors put drag on his flight path as he headed to the final confrontation with the consensus candidate of the Harperites, whoever that might turn out to be.
Mike Chong knew it wouldn’t be him. “The challenge I’ve had in this leadership race, quite frankly, is that I’ve run against a multimillion dollar party machine that has been actively campaigning against any form of carbon tax,” he said a few weeks before the vote. “That has worked against my campaign. I happened to come out with a particular policy that is very conservative—because it’s based on free markets, smaller government, and much lower income taxes—and I’ve run up against the party machine that has actively campaigned against a carbon tax for at least the last six months, since last October when Mr. Trudeau announced his national carbon pricing plan.”
Scheer’s campaign had to decide, every day, how hard to go after the frontrunner. “There was this ongoing continuous decision-making about how forcefully we should attack Max,” Marshall said. “What we would see is whenever we attacked Max, Erin O’Toole would get a bit of a bump [in the polls]. People would say, ‘I want a unity candidate and I don’t like how Andrew’s attacking somebody.’”
The climactic “leadership event,” at the sprawling Toronto Convention Centre on Dixon Road in Etobicoke, was surreal even by the standards of Canadian political conventions. First, it was competing with the venue’s other weekend tenant, a convention of extravagantly costumed fans of animé, the Japanese comic-book art. Second, it was kind of fake: almost all the votes had been mailed in by members across the country. Only a few thousand would vote onsite. The large field of candidates and the elaborate rules ensured there would be many rounds of balloting, but there would be no room for negotiations among campaigns at the venue, as there used to be in old-fashioned delegate conventions.
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Before the announcement of the results, Scheer’s team had crunched the numbers. If Bernier led Scheer by only five per cent on the first ballot, they were sure Scheer would come from behind to win. But if Bernier led by 10 points or more, they could not catch him.
The first ballot arrived: Bernier on 29 per cent, Scheer on 22 per cent. A seven-point spread. Neither close enough for certain victory, nor far enough back for certain doom. “We knew then that it was going to be extremely tight,” Marshall said later. “The two big questions for me were Letich’s seconds [the second-ballot choices of Leitch supporters] and Chong’s seconds.”
Scheer’s team expected Bernier to perform better among Leitch voters and Chong voters. But if Scheer stayed close, he’d be within striking distance once third-choice votes from the social conservative candidates, Lemieux and Trost, were counted.
“What ended up happening is, Bernier did better than us with Leitch, but it was a small advantage,” Marshall said. “When Chong dropped off, a chunk of his vote when to O’Toole—and not to Bernier. That was also helpful.”
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The last candidate to drop off the ballot was Erin O’Toole. It was an extraordinary accomplishment for an MP who had come to the Commons only in 2012. He had lasted longer than cabinet veterans older and more deeply entrenched in the party than he. And he was so interchangeable with Scheer that a lot of Conservatives mentioned them in the same breath: Scheer-and-O’Toole, O’Toole-and-Scheer. And when O’Toole’s luck finally ran out, his down-ballot support broke in Scheer’s favour by a large enough margin to barely edge out Bernier.
You could see it on Bernier’s face all night. With every ballot announcement, he kept his lead, but it wasn’t enough of a lead. The man who had come so close to revolutionizing Quebec politics looked stricken. He knew he had only come close. He knew Scheer would pull ahead in the final confrontation.
Andrew Scheer is a lucky man. He won the leadership of a deeply partisan party—as all winning parties must be—after a decade of enforced abstinence from partisan display. He made major inroads into a province, Quebec, where he lacked crucial native-son advantage. And in the first days after his victory, he has benefited from the public support of all his erstwhile leadership rivals.
He will need to be luckier still if he is to escape the fate of the temporary national leaders with whom Canada’s political landscape has been littered in these tumultuous times—Stockwell Day, Paul Martin, Stéphane Dion, Michael Ignatieff, Tom Mulcair. To win, Scheer will need a deft touch and, let’s be honest, an extended calamity in close proximity to Justin Trudeau.
To survive a defeat and come back for another election—as Stephen Harper did before him—he’ll need to avoid losing too badly. These are all tall orders, and the oddsmakers had better be offering good numbers for anyone willing to bet on Scheer.
But he has one advantage that all successful party leaders need: He feels, to his party, like one of them. Scheer is no dodgy transplant like Ignatieff or Mulcair. And he did not come to his position with a mission to change the party that elected him. He is a Conservative’s Conservative. It’s a subtle but crucial cultural advantage. He’ll need it.
—with John Geddes, Aaron Hutchins, Meagan Campbell and Nick Taylor-Vaisey
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