Our just-concluded federal election seemed very peculiar to me. I woke up the morning after thinking that it was the rare election where everybody could claim to have won.
The federal Liberals lost their majority but clung to power. Considering Justin Trudeau spent the year leading up to the vote shooting himself in both feet with the SNC-Lavalin scandal, and was then walloped by his own past stupidity in the form of the blackface scandal, this is nothing short of a minor miracle.
The NDP lost seats, but considering how dire their situation was six months before the vote, and how little confidence there was in new leader Jagmeet Singh, the fact that he proved an able campaigner and staved off total annihilation could be spun as a win.
The Bloc returned from not-even-having-official-party-status oblivion, so that’s a win. The Greens got an extra MP. And When the People’s Party of Canada returned not a single MP, we all won.
But what of Andrew Scheer’s Conservatives? Surely, they were the second-biggest winners of the night. The Tories managed to increase the number of seats they held in Parliament, and edged out the Liberals in the popular vote, something that will no doubt be a useful rhetorical club with which to beat the Grits.
And yet, over the past month, calls for Scheer’s resignation have gone from quiet, off the record grumbling to angry, out in public grumbling.
It seems that while everyone was focused on western alienation, i.e. Conservative supporters in Alberta being cheesed off that they lost, Scheer should have been worried about eastern alienation.
Most of Scheer’s critics vocal are east of Manitoba, it turns out.
The problem is that the Conservatives actually lost votes in Ontario and Quebec, even as they ran up ridiculous majorities in a number of Alberta and Saskatchewan ridings.
How is it possible, some disgruntled Conservatives are asking, that with a nitwit like Trudeau at the helm, a lightweight, a bozo, a man saddled with multiple scandals that called his judgment into serious question, the Tories couldn’t win?
Peter MacKay, erstwhile leader of the old Progressive Conservatives and noted non-Albertan, started the abuse by declaring that losing the election was like “having a breakaway on an open net and missing the net.”
While MacKay is publicly supportive of Scheer – mostly – more and more Conservatives have been saying there must be something wrong at the top.
The problem is that the brewing campaign to get rid of Scheer isn’t a civil war between those who support him and those who oppose him.
It’s a potential war between factions of the Conservative party, between social conservatives and social liberals, between east and west, rural and urban.
What does the Conservative Party stand for?
Low taxes. Balanced budgets. Fiscal conservatism in general. Standing up for the middle class.
So far, so unified. You’d have trouble finding a Conservative in the country who opposed those values, not to mention they have a broad appeal for middle-income, middle-aged homeowners in every region of the country.
The problem is once you drill down past that.
Scheer’s been taking a lot of stick from his critics back east for failing to appeal to suburban, socially-liberal soccer moms and hockey dads. Folks who care about LGBTQ rights, wish they could buy an electric car because they’re worried about climate change, but also worry about paying too much in taxes.
Meanwhile, he’s got the red meat social conservatives arguing that he wasn’t conservative enough, darn it! If he’d stuck to his pro-life guns he would be PM right now! (Spoiler: no, he wouldn’t.)
This is the problem the Conservatives face. It’s not whether Scheer is a bad leader (he’s kind of average, I guess?) but what kind of party they want to be.
Do they want to be simply the standard-bearer for fiscal responsibility, accepting that Canada has moved forward on LGBTQ+ rights, abortion, women’s rights, and cannabis? Or do they want to represent the (significant minority) who would like to roll back some or all of those changes?
If the Conservatives give up their socially conservative ways, they could win parts of urban Canada where they’ve struggled of late, including much of urban Toronto, Montreal, and Metro Vancouver. A poll immediately after the election found that fully 43 per cent of Liberal voters had voted strategically. They’d rather have picked someone else – likely a Green, NDP, or maybe a now-mythical Progressive Conservative candidate. But they held their nose and voted Liberal, scandals and all.
Can the Conservatives afford to turn their backs on their socially conservative base – or will some political entrepreneur form yet another splinter party to turn those alienated voters into a force in Ottawa? Turning your back means leaving it open for someone to stick the knife in.
Remember, the PPC failed because Maxime Bernier was seen as a traitor and an egomaniac by most Conservative voters. The night of the election, I ran into a Conservative supporter who confided that actually, he really liked Bernier’s policies better, but couldn’t stomach the way Bernier had flounced out of the party, and anyway, who wants to split the vote?
If Scheer sticks with his alienated western voters, who are still furious about the National Energy Program, he’ll never win in the east.
If he abandons his Saskatchewan roots (note: he’s a transplant from Ontario, like Harper before him) he could find himself ambushed by the Reform Party 2.0.
It’s not a good position to be in. But it’s not a question of replacing Scheer. Whoever is sitting in the Conservative leader’s seat is going to have to deal with those tough questions before they stand a chance of becoming PM.
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