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Opinion Scheer’s snub of Leitch speaks volumes about Conservative strategy

There goes Kellie Leitch, who tried to climb the greasy pole of political leadership by pandering to anti-Muslim fears but instead slid to the bottom of the Conservative Party heap.

New leader Andrew Scheer, faced with the choice of which of 35 shadow-cabinet roles to give to Ms. Leitch, gave her nothing.

Mr. Scheer faced a lot of tricky decisions in forming his first shadow cabinet, most involving his former rivals in the leadership race. He made Erin O'Toole the foreign affairs critic, while his biggest rival, Maxime Bernier got a consolation prize as innovation critic when he was passed over for his first choice of finance. But Mr. Scheer had to deal with Ms. Leitch, and he did.

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Now he doesn't have to answer for Ms. Leitch's campaign, in which she blew dog whistles to rouse anti-Muslim sentiment with proposals to test potential immigrants for Canadian values and tweeted that Donald Trump's election victory brought an "exciting message" that Canada needs.

Related: Scheer shakes up Conservative team, promotes some rivals but not Leitch, Trost

It's an important decision for Mr. Scheer. It might seem obvious to many, because Ms. Leitch became politically radioactive to a wide swath of Canadian voters. But she had garnered a support base inside the party, and not because of charisma. Mr. Scheer might have shrugged, reasoned that she was a former cabinet minister and leadership rival, and stowed her in a portfolio such as health, where Ms. Leitch, a pediatric orthopedic surgeon, had bona fides. But he ditched her.

Mr. Scheer had already vacillated recently about cutting ties to Rebel Media, the right-wing website run by Ezra Levant that lost staff after the white supremacist demonstrations in Charlottesville, Va., when one of its (now former) personalities, Faith Goldy, expressed sympathy for white nationalist demonstrators. Under pressure, Mr. Scheer waited for days before announcing he'd stop giving interviews to Rebel Media until its "editorial directions" change. Keeping Ms. Leitch, whose campaign bought Rebel Media's e-mail list to solicit support, would have been more wavering on that kind of politics.

Last fall, Ms. Leitch was on a magazine cover and touted as a front-runner. Now she is a cautionary tale about inauthentic political pandering. Close friends and political allies who had known her for years said they'd never heard her talk about anything like values testing for immigrants before her leadership campaign. To understand the core of her conviction, remember that the switch came after her campaign sent out a survey to potential supporters asking if they liked the values-test idea.

It all looked tortured at times. Ms. Leitch would go to rallies organized by Rebel Media, trumpet the testing of immigrants for Canadian values, or tweet a picture a blue-eyed woman with duct tape over her mouth to oppose a motion condemning Islamophobia, then pretend she was just talking about values like hard work, or about free speech. She told potential supporters she had the guts to tell it like it is, but then didn't say much at all. She never appeared natural doing anything. She finished sixth.

Mr. Scheer's shadow-cabinet selection showed he thinks Ms. Leitch is mostly baggage now.

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He left out only two other leadership contestants in his caucus: Deepak Obhrai, the veteran backbencher whose campaign was never taken seriously inside the party, and Brad Trost, who ran on an activist anti-abortion plank. Mr. Scheer, a pro-lifer who wants to play down his social conservatism, doesn't want to answer for Mr. Trost's views, either.

Mr. Scheer seems to want simple, tax-cutting conservatism. He gave Pierre Poilievre, a free-market conservative, the high-profile post as finance critic, probably mostly because he has the knack of getting under opponents' skin, and Finance Minister Bill Morneau is a key target. Mr. Scheer named most of his serious leadership rivals to substantial roles. It suggests an effort to pull the team together around Tory basics, and dump those who might distract.

And Mr. Scheer needs to stitch the team together quickly.

He's facing three or four by-election tests soon, and a couple could be tricky. One is the Lac-Saint-Jean seat of Quebec Conservative Denis Lebel; another could come in South Surrey White Rock, because MP Dianne Watts is considering a bid for the BC Liberal leadership. He needed to ditch divisive baggage – and that meant dumping Ms. Leitch.

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