Where does Conservative politics belong in 2020? It seems that the return to the Harper years are almost upon us.
The Conservative leadership is up in the air once again, after two years of Andrew Scheer, the middle-aged insurance agent and career politician who narrowly defeated Maxime Bernier in 2017. The party’s deep ideological fractures couldn’t have been clearer. Conservative members simply couldn’t decide on what brand of conservatism they wanted: populism or small-c conservatism, western representation or suburban Quebecois, the return to Harper, or a new way forward. 2017 looked like the Campbell years in the early 1990s; members were caught between a rock and a hard place. A decade of Harper left the party looking weak, tired, stagnant, and itching for change. 2017 should have been the opportunity to inject fresh blood into the party, yet that opportunity was squandered. As former Progressive Conservative leader Peter Mackay put it:
“Andrew Scheer missed a goal on an open net.”
Heading into the October election last year, the Conservatives couldn’t decide how to market themselves. Were they hard right zealots; a home for religious people? Were they small government libertarians? Were they simply just contrarians to Trudeau? Marketing a party so broadly erodes not only its identity, but its reason for existing. When you try to appeal to so many different voters, you end up appealing to no one.
Justin Trudeau was far from the most popular Prime Minister when campaign season arrived. Disapproval began to spike heavily in 2018 and 2019, along with the SNC-Lavalin affair, saw disapproval rise above 60%. The former poster-boy of Vogue magazine, a herald of a new era of progressive politics, was looking more like Harper in his last days in the Prime Minister’s seat. Andrew Scheer marketed himself as your neighbour, the nice guy down the road, someone who just wants to help you “get ahead.” He presented himself as smiley, dimply Andrew, a family man with family values; someone to bring stability and competence back to the PM’s office. For Conservatives longing for the Harper years, it looked like a slam dunk.
Until it wasn’t.
Fears of his religious beliefs, including his socially conservative stance, had voters give a resounding “no” to Prime Minister Scheer. The following months spelled disaster for his reign, and he announced his departure as leader in December, pending a leadership election set for June 2020.
So far, the usual suspects have been propped up for a potential run. Namely, Erin O’Toole and Peter McKay; Safe, electable, moderate, and appealing. I argue that if the Conservatives want to win, than moving away from the centre is their best bet. Whether or not that is best for the country is up to debate. Victory relies on distancing the party from the others. Finance critic Pierre Poilievre is the silver bullet the Conservatives need to topple the Liberal government.
A perennial concern for Conservative is finding appeal more broadly than western Canada. Ontario and Quebec are persistent issues for Conservative candidates. The Rise of the Bloc in Quebec, and the Liberals in Ontario, partially in reaction to Ontario Premier Doug Ford, usurped any chance of any meaningful impact of Conservatives in the region. Yet, seats remain. Poilievre is the MP for Carleton, a suburban riding just outside Ottawa, and has been re-elected six times. This bonus is two-fold. Not only is it a safe seat, it’s a safe seat at the heart of the Liberal party. It is a stronghold that refuses to budge, and would be ideal for turning Ontario blue again. Poilievre’s seat represents suburbs and middle-class families; the Conservative base.
Beyond his seat, Pierre is of Franco-Albertan heritage, a caricature of a perfect candidate for a party landlocked in western Canada. He has the holy trifecta: an Ontario seat, western appeal, and fluency in French. In terms of policy, he is a staunch Conservative, fiery in his rhetoric. As the finance critic, issues of budget and spending get him in a huff, and many clips exist online of his signature scathing snarkiness. For Conservatives, he is the antithesis of Scheer. Strong, stable, young, and ready.
It is not all sunshine and rainbows however. Pierre, while different than Scheer, is ideologically aligned with the mainstream Conservative base. His voting record is exactly what you think. A party loyalist; a boy scout. For party members, he looks like a better Scheer, who was just a worse Harper. To progressives, Harper has been a ‘boogeyman’ for the past few years, who point to that decade as one of austerity and inequality. For Conservatives however, those years were the golden age.
I argue that if the Conservatives hope to win anytime soon, they need to actually remember what party they are. The Conservative Party. While Red Tory-ism has its place, voters are hungry for something proven, meaner, and hungrier.