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Politics Andrew Scheer strikes a careful balance with social conservatives

In Stephen Harper's final, obsessively controlling years, when some Conservative backbenchers wanted to make statements in the House supporting the right to life, not only did the Prime Minister's Office prohibit them, it told Speaker Andrew Scheer he had no authority to recognize them without the government's consent.

From his chair in the House of Commons, Mr. Scheer bluntly declared that the Speaker controlled the House, that he would recognize whom he chose, and that the Tory backbenchers were welcome to say their piece.

That support for social conservatives helped Mr. Scheer win the leadership of the Conservative Party on Saturday. Now, he must both accommodate and contain them.

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Party strategists are no doubt pleased – and their Liberal and NDP counterparts chagrined – that Mr. Scheer eked out a narrow come-from-behind win at Saturday's leadership event over Maxime Bernier. The Quebec MP's staunch libertarian views – abandoning a federal role in health care, ending supply management, massively cutting taxes – would have been fine fodder for the Conservatives' opponents.

Mr. Scheer placed some problematic policies in the window, as well: tax breaks for parents who send their children to private school; vowing that "No free speech on campus means no federal grants."

He also opposes carbon taxes, would balance the budget in two years – which the Liberals have rendered effectively impossible – and wants to entrench property rights in the Charter (good luck with that).

But the Halifax policy conference to be held next year in August will have much less of a challenge making a Scheer manifesto politically saleable than the heavy lifting that would have been required had Mr. Bernier prevailed.

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And Mr. Scheer will neither want to, nor need to, abandon his own moderately "so-con" aspect. Go into any riding in the huge suburbs outside Toronto and talk at length to immigrant voters from countries who dominate many of those ridings – immigrants from places such as India or the Philippines or the Middle East. You often hear this: Gay marriage offends our values; sex education belongs in the home, not the classroom; everyone seems to have rights, but no one has responsibilities.

The affable MP from Regina may well appeal to these voters, especially if he can convincingly convey the message that only Conservatives will keep their taxes low and the economy sound.

That said, Mr. Scheer's win hardly represents a takeover of the party by the religious right. On the 11th ballot, Saturday night, when 14 candidates had been narrowed to four, the social-conservatives' champion, Saskatoon MP Brad Trost, placed last, with 14 per cent of the vote. The so-cons are a voice within the Conservative Party, but by no means the dominant voice.

And those on the progressive-conservative end of the spectrum should be assuaged by Mr. Scheer's vote to end Conservative opposition to same-sex marriage at last year's policy convention. He has also promised no legislative action on the right to an abortion. And while he defends the rights of gun owners, he offers nothing radical on expanding those rights.

At this point, Mr. Scheer strikes a careful balance of welcoming social conservatives within the tent without pandering to them. For any conservative political leader, that's a good place to be.

He has other advantages: stronger caucus support than Mr. Bernier enjoyed, youth – he is only 38, though one suspects Mr. Scheer has been middle-aged since he was 16 – and a steady, friendly, constantly grinning disposition that makes him hard not to like.

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Also, as Speaker of the House during the last Harper government, Mr. Scheer is unburdened by the baggage of the scandals and accusations of autocracy that would have dogged former cabinet ministers. Liberals will not be able to say: "Andrew Scheer supported …" or "Andrew Scheer voted for …."

This is not to minimize the challenges ahead. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his government remain popular. More than a dimpled grin will be needed to shake the voters' confidence.

But all in all, the Conservative Party is in better shape to take on that challenge than many would have believed a year-and-a-half ago.

You know something? This is going to be fun to watch.

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