In a way, it doesn’t seem fair that Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer, whose party won 26 more seats and a greater share of the popular vote in 2019 than in 2015, is the target of such a pile-on from within his own party.
Moderate conservatives are publicly urging him to get it together. Social conservatives are publicly urging him to get lost. Conservative Senator Jean-Guy Dagenais recently quit his party’s caucus explicitly because of Mr. Scheer’s views. And now two former Harper advisers have teamed up with the creator of Ontario Proud and Canada Proud to start a non-profit, called Conservative Victory, with the goal of putting pressure on Mr. Scheer to resign ahead of the party’s scheduled leadership review in April. Some friends, eh?
Mr. Scheer was unequivocal when speaking to the press Thursday that he has no intention of resigning, although he declined to specify the level of support he would need from the party’s membership in April to continue as leader. It’s a lonely result for someone who presided over a significant improvement in the party’s representation in government.
It must feel particularly unfair considering that when Mr. Scheer won his party’s leadership in 2017, the prospect of a Conservative win in 2019 was fairly remote. High-profile Conservatives who would have been obvious leadership front-runners – notably, Peter MacKay and Jason Kenney – declined to throw their names into the race, leaving the others to joust over what appeared to be at least a six-year gig as leader of the Official Opposition.
Mr. Scheer surprised many by pulling off a win at the expense of Maxime Bernier, and he surprised again when it looked like he really did have a shot at winning the 2019 election. In that way, he went from underdog to potential prime minister in just a couple of years, which is why Mr. Scheer’s supporters – should they exist – might think it cheap for so many Conservatives to turn on him now.
But presiding over an improved election result is not the same as being responsible for an improved election result. For that, Conservatives should probably thank Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who kneecapped the Liberals with a collection of personal and party scandals, including his bungling of the SNC-Lavalin affair, just in time for the federal election.
Granted, it was not the categorical “breakaway on an open net” described by Mr. MacKay, who appears to have started measuring the drapes at Stornoway, but it did leave Conservatives with a genuine opportunity to capture voters’ attention and support.
Yet Mr. Scheer stumbled when he finally got his chance and for largely the same reason he’s getting attacked from all sides within his party now. He is having trouble finding people to stand in his corner for the simple reason that he’s never actually staked one out.
Indeed, despite years in the spotlight and weeks on the campaign trail, Mr. Scheer has managed to communicate very little in terms of a comprehensive world view or personal approach to governance.
On social issues, he’s clumsy and vague. Social conservatives interpret this as him lacking the temerity to see to social change. Progressive conservatives detect a cowardice of a different kind, and many recognize that Mr. Scheer’s waffling is fatal with voters in areas of support the Conservatives desperately need.
During the election, Mr. Scheer’s fiscal policy promises were a mixed bag of lower taxes and tightened government expenses, combined with big spending promises and boutique tax credits. His foreign policy outlook was virtually non-existent (other than a vow to roll back foreign aid) and his guiding principles as a policy maker were, and remain, tough to decipher.
That ambiguity and incoherence has saddled Mr. Scheer with the image of an advocate of nothing – a muddled collection of kind-of conservative ideas, with no real direction or identity and all of the zest and gusto of a plate of boiled celery. And it’s very hard to get excited about, or defend, a plate of boiled celery.
Effective leaders don’t have this problem. Like him or not, Mr. Trudeau has successfully branded himself a relentless optimist, guided by a desire to see to positive change. Stephen Harper conveyed a wonkish sort of gravitas. Jean Chrétien was a no-nonsense pragmatist. Mr. Scheer is … whatever the internal polls say he should be? A timid social conservative? Against the carbon tax? Boiled celery.
It might not be fair that the unlikely leader of the Conservatives, head of a now-more-powerful Official Opposition, would be rewarded by his party with a kick in the pants and map to the exit. But this isn’t about fairness. It’s about convincing the membership that a Conservative leader can ably connect with the wider electorate. And if Mr. Scheer can’t hold on to the faith of his own membership, it doesn’t bode well for his prospects with the rest of Canada.