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Andrew Scheer presented the façade of party unity when he emerged from a marathon caucus meeting on Wednesday.
“The whole team knows that Conservatives only succeed when they work together and remain united,” he said.
It’s true that the caucus was unified behind the idea that the party’s membership, not its elected members, should hold the leader to account. But that was where consensus ended.
The meeting didn’t last seven hours because MPs were lauding the leader and his team.
There are very real concerns among MPs from Ontario in particular, that the party will be reduced to a rump in Canada’s largest province, if major changes are not introduced by Scheer – or possibly his successor. The loss of Milton, a riding formerly held by Lisa Raitt, is seen as a harbinger by MPs with commuter belt constituencies who have seen their vote share dip in successive elections since 2011.
Sources said just about every MP took to the microphone and there was widespread dissatisfaction with Scheer’s suggestion, expressed in his press conference, that the problem with the election campaign was simply a failure to communicate. “Sometimes our message didn’t resonate with Canadians,” he told reporters.
One MP said he came out of the meeting less confident that when he went in. “The leader and his team are doubling down and at this early stage there are no signs he’s going to change,” he said.
One recurring complaint from Ontario MPs was that Scheer has surrounded himself with westerners who “reinforce his bad instincts”, in the words of one party insider. That feeling has been aggravated by the election of Alberta MP, Tom Kmiec as caucus chair to replace an Ontario MP, David Sweet.
“This could become an existential question for the party going forward,” said one Ontario MP. “It could be distilled down to a western Reform rump.”
There are no signs he’s going to change
Ontario remains the largest source of Conservative MPs with 36 members, compared to Alberta’s 33 MPs. (There are 17 from B.C., 14 from Saskatchewan, seven from Manitoba, 10 from Quebec, three from New Brunswick and one from Nova Scotia).
The prospect is always there for fratricide among the loose confederation of warring tribes that agreed to merge under the Conservative Party of Canada banner in 2004.
It seems unlikely that the party could unravel into Reform and Progressive Conservative camps – few present day Tories were active in the legacy parties.
But there is a sense of frustration that Scheer could not persuade voters in Ontario and Quebec that he could live up to the expectations of a mainstream party leader in 2019. That would include embracing the gay community, speaking from the heart on reproductive rights issues and explaining how Canada would fulfil its international obligations on climate change.
One of the few unequivocal statements Scheer made on Wednesday was that as long as he is leader, the Conservative Party will oppose a carbon tax.
One Ontario MP said that he is relaxed about that statement, as long as the leader is clear about other ways of achieving greenhouse gas emission targets.
It’s a character issue
But the MP acknowledged voters may not believe Scheer whatever he says on the environment because he comes across as not caring about the issue.
“It’s a character issue,” he said. “People didn’t know him before. Now they know him but they don’t trust him. He has been less than forthright and transparent, so he’s got his work cut out for him.”
Scheer has been like a puppy chasing its tail. His talking-points-heavy campaign offered little worth voting for and then he wondered why people didn’t elect him prime minister. The lack of ambition shrank the party’s appeal to its base and he failed to make an emotional connection with people where he needed to, particularly in the country’s largest cities.
The sense of those emerging from Wednesday’s meeting is that caucus has put Scheer on notice that he has six months to figure out how to win in central Canada or the membership will sort it out for him.
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019