As he climbed the stage to give his concession speech at the International Trade Centre in suburban Regina on election night last Oct. 21, Andrew Scheer was a dead man walking. He just didn’t know it. Scheer had entered the crowded auditorium wearing a crisp navy blue suit and carrying his daughter Mary in his left arm, trailed by his wife Jill and their four other children, looking buoyant.
His supporters, however, were noticeably subdued.
Although the federal Tories had grabbed 121 seats and won the largest share of the popular vote that evening, they’d failed to take out a weakened Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. “More Canadians wanted us to win this election than any other party,” Scheer said in his speech. “And now we’re heading back to Ottawa with a much bigger team, with more support from coast to coast. And with an endorsement from the Canadian people that we are the government in waiting.”
But the knives were already being sharpened. Scheer’s performance during the 40-day election campaign was viewed by many in the Conservative Party of Canada as a calamity. “He didn’t just lose the election, he was so incompetent that he left the party in horrible, horrible infrastructure shape,” one senior Conservative, who’s now working on Erin O’Toole’s leadership campaign, told me. “It was the most incompetent campaign I could imagine.”
Among those upset was Sara MacIntyre, a Toronto-based government relations consultant, former press secretary to both prime minister Stephen Harper (2009-12) and B.C. premier Christy Clark, and a columnist for Sun Media. MacIntyre was angry over Scheer’s stance on same-sex marriage and LGBTQ rights.
“Frankly, I’m sick and tired of my party being run by people that have values that don’t reflect mine,” she told me. “It was in (2004) when gay marriage became legal and it should be celebrated. And I’m pissed off the leadership of my party wouldn’t celebrate that.”
Scheer's social conservatisim alienated urban voters
MacIntyre is an urbanite who feels Scheer’s positions on same-sex marriage and abortion (both of which he opposes) hurt the party in cities such as Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver, which have a huge swath of seats — seats needed to win power. Yet the Conservatives were almost entirely shut out of those hubs. Meanwhile, they won only 10 seats in Québec, down from 12 the previous election.
Ironically, Scheer also alienated the party’s social conservatives after promising a Tory government would not ban abortions or same-sex marriage. “When he seemed to be abandoning the people who put him into leadership, that’s when he got into trouble after he lost the election,” explains Dean Del Mastro, a former Tory MP from Peterborough, Ont., and once Harper’s parliamentary secretary. “He didn’t have a constituency anymore in the party to fight off the attacks that came against his leadership.”
And the attacks came fast and furious. Former Harper cabinet minister Peter MacKay quipped that Scheer’s loss “was like having a breakaway on an open net and missing the net,” while his positions on same-sex marriage and abortion “hung around Andrew Scheer’s neck like a stinking albatross, quite frankly.”
A Tory insider told me about the current caucus: “It’s a rump of old whiteys, small-town mayors and that’s not a recipe for success in the future.”
Kory Teneycke, a political consultant and former director of communications to Harper (2008-09) began criticizing Scheer on-air during election night while working as a CBC analyst. Soon after the election, he and former Tory MP John Reynolds and Jeff Ballingall, the founder of Ontario Proud — a conservative advocacy group — formed Conservative Victory, a non-profit designed to remove Scheer from his post. Sara MacIntyre quickly joined as the group’s spokesperson.
Scheer tried to cling to his job, but the end came swiftly. In December, Teneycke leaked to Robert Fife, Ottawa bureau chief for the Globe and Mail, explosive information that had been passed on to him by someone inside the Conservative Fund, the party’s fundraising arm. The fund had been paying private school expenses for some of Scheer’s children. Scheer resigned on Dec. 12, as the story broke.
Still, for many familiar with how the Tory party operates, Scheer’s very public execution had Stephen Harper’s fingerprints all over it. For one thing, Harper was sitting on the board of the Conservative Fund. “It’s very clear that this story (of Scheer’s expenses) came out of the Conservative Fund,” says Del Mastro. “It was intentionally shot right at Andrew Scheer’s head and it was meant to take him out. It was the same thing they did to (Mike) Duffy and to (Pamela) Wallin. These people were largely outed by people within the party.”
Yet, how much of the party’s poor performance in the last two elections can be blamed on Stephen Harper?
According to the Conservatives I interviewed for this story, they all agree it’s still very much his party. Last winter, Teneycke wrote an opinion piece for CBC headlined, “It’s Stephen Harper’s party — and he’ll do what he wants to” that said: “Even five years after his defeat, the presence of Stephen Harper still defines the Conservative Party of Canada... Harper doesn't need to campaign for or against anyone in the party leadership race. Every candidate will be attempting to claim some degree of ownership or continuance of the Harper record… There is no path to victory running against Harper’s legacy.”
“I think it's fair to say the Conservative Party of Canada is still the House That Harper Built,” says Andrew MacDougall, one of Harper’s former press secretaries and directors of communications. “How can it not be? He created it and was the leader for 12 of its 17 years of existence.”
If Harper is the most powerful force in the Tory party, is he preventing it from changing direction as many believe it must? And if he’s doing so, is Harper actually destroying the very thing he created by guaranteeing the party may never return to power — or at least not for a very long time?
“The problem is that Conservatives are living Blackberry lives in an iPhone world,” says Clinton Desveaux, a prominent Tory activist in Nova Scotia who worked with Harper on political campaigns. “Stephen Harper is responsible for the Blackberry culture in an iPhone world. And that is the dilemma the Conservative Party is facing today.”
Tories looking for new leader again - and it's not going well
Right now, for the second time in three years, the party is looking for a new leader. And so far, it’s not going well.
For starters, none of the conservative movement's biggest stars threw their hats in the ring — Jason Kenney, Jean Charest, Rona Ambrose and John Baird. MP Pierre Poilievre lasted two weeks before he pulled the plug on his bid, ostensibly to spend more time with family. L. Ian MacDonald, a former speechwriter for Brian Mulroney and publisher of Policy Magazine says the caliber of candidates is much weaker than past eras. “Harper did not prepare succession,” he remarks.
What the race has revealed is a strong streak of bigotry and homophobia within the party.
One potential candidate, Richard Décarie, a former deputy chief of staff for Harper when he was Opposition leader, was barred from running after he claimed homosexuality was a “choice.” This prompted Tory MP Michelle Rempel Garner to complain: “I am very, very tired, beyond tired, of my party being hijacked by this type of bigotry.”
Someone who rushed to Décarie’s defence was leadership contender Derek Sloan. The Ontario MP not only announced his opposition to banning gay conversion therapy, but garnered headlines for suggesting Canada’s chief public health officer, Dr. Theresa Tam (who was born in Hong Kong and grew up in the U.K.), was working for China rather than Canadians in her handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. Another hopeful, Leslyn Lewis, is uncomfortable with same-sex marriage and opposes abortion. And Ontario lawyer Jim Karahalios got thrown out of the race after attacking Walied Soliman, O’Toole’s campaign manager, for being a proponent of “Sharia law.”
Even then the party couldn’t expel Karahalios smoothly: After Karahalios took the party to court, a judge found the Tories had failed to follow proper procedure (and refused to refund his $300,000 registration fee). After the ruling, the party threw Karahalios out of the race again — this time by the book.
Meantime, the two frontrunners, MacKay and former minister of veterans affairs Erin O’Toole, have embraced the Harper-Scheer platforms that lost the Tories two straight elections — namely cutting taxes, developing the oilsands, free trade deals, weakening environmental rules to build more pipelines, opposing carbon taxes, noncommittal on climate change and eschewing gun control. O’Toole says he would defund the CBC if elected prime minister, criminalize protesters involved in blockades, bring back mandatory minimum sentences (which the Supreme Court has ruled are unconstitutional) and has embraced Alberta Premier Jason Kenney’s false claims about the “foreign-funded sources of influence” over critics of the oilsands.
Neither man speaks French fluently. When announcing his candidacy, MacKay managed to mangle a common French verb tense.
Combined with Scheer making tone-deaf gaffes during the COVID-19 shutdown — such as questioning the wisdom of paying out-of-work Canadians federal funds — polls show the party is languishing at 25 to 28 per cent support, which would mean a loss of up to 40 seats if an election were held today. The Liberals, by contrast, are up to 40 to 46 per cent.
“The Conservatives are in trouble,” says Duane Bratt, a political scientist at Mount Royal University in Calgary. “While they still have got money and volunteers and electoral support, there are cleavages in that party — regionally especially, as well as ideologically. And they are just flummoxed on how to deal with Trudeau.”
Many Tories despairing at direction of party
Now many Tories are despairing.
“We are at 25 per cent in the polls and in my neck of the woods in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) we lost ground last election,” frets Chris Alexander, former minister of citizenship and immigration under Harper, who lost his own seat five years ago. "I lost by what I thought was a jaw-dropping margin that took my breath away in 2015. In this last election the Liberal vote more than doubled (in my riding) than ours and our vote count went down by several thousand votes. I honestly didn’t think that was possible after four years of Justin Trudeau.”
Yet Harper may not be helping matters: In January, he stepped down from the board of the Conservative Fund, ostensibly to ensure no conflict of interest with the investigation into Scheer’s private school funding. But then Paul Wells, senior political writer for Maclean’s, ran a story saying the main reason Harper quit the fund was “to free himself up to block Jean Charest’s campaign for the party leadership.”
An Ottawa press corps source told me Wells is often used by Harper as a conduit for leaks. Either way, it worked: Charest, who’d even briefly posted a video announcing his plan to run, suddenly backed out. Charest had called Harper in December to get his blessing — but did not get it.
Harper’s opposition to Charest is political: he thinks the former Québec premier is too liberal. “Not only was (Harper) opposed but he was going to do what he could to ensure that Jean Charest didn’t win,” a former Harper confidant told me. “It’s ideological: Jean Charest is perceived to be more of a Red Tory and Harper is perceived to be more of a Blue Tory.”
Whether Charest would have won the job or not, he has the sort of credentials that would have helped the Tories pick up seats in Québec and in the voter-rich bastions of Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal.
“I think (the Tories) are in a vice for the foreseeable future,” remarks Dimitry Anastakis, a historian at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management. “I really do. And it explains why so few people are actually putting their hats in the ring on this one. Because what (Harper) left them with is a very ideologically narrow party… It’s rural, it’s white, it’s old but more importantly its policy positions are locked in… So Harper really has put them in an ideological box which they can’t get out of because so many of their supporters look back on the Harper years as golden years.”
How Harper is ideologically undermining his own party
If Stephen Harper is unconsciously torpedoing the party he created, how did this happen? After all, he led the party to three back-to-back election victories and was prime minister for nearly a decade — and blessed with a strategic mind.
The answer lies in the lessons forgotten when the Conservative Party was born.
Prior to 1993, conservatives gathered under the Progressive Conservative Party of Canada (PC) umbrella, which adopted what was called a “big tent” approach: social conservatives, Québeckers, Red Tories, Atlantic, Eastern and Western Canadians all felt welcome. The Tories knew their base got them only about 30 per cent of the vote — and therefore they needed to attract voters who were not conservatives. “We knew that true conservative believers are not numerous enough to elect the government,” explains Lowell Murray, a retired Tory senator and former PC party activist.
Brian Mulroney was the most adept leader at building a coast-to-coast conservative coalition. “His approach was he welcomed right-wingers and left-wingers and centrists,” says former Tory MP Bill Casey, who was first elected from Nova Scotia in 1988. “There was a place in his party for everybody.”
And it worked: Mulroney won two back-to-back overwhelming majorities in 1984 and 1988, even wiping out the Liberals in Québec.
Mulroney ruled as a centrist, taking progressive stands on human rights, racism and the environment. “With Mulroney it was a full bore embrace of multiculturalism and looking at the need for social justice and historic justice,” explains Patrick Boyer, a lawyer, author and Tory MP during the Mulroney years.
Brian Mulroney was Canada's "greenest prime minister"
Mulroney was a leading international voice against apartheid and releasing Nelson Mandela, and passed significant environmental legislation — including the acid rain treaty with the U.S., the Environmental Protection Act and establishing eight new national parks. His government was even alarmed about climate change. “Jean Charest was minister of environment at Rio (Earth Summit in 1992), so he brought in the framework on climate change when Mulroney was prime minister,” says Elizabeth May, outgoing leader of the Green Party and a senior policy adviser to one of Mulroney’s environment ministers. “In hindsight no government has come close since doing so much on the environment domestically and globally as was happening under Mulroney.”
In 2006, Mulroney was given an award for “greenest prime minister” in Canadian history by environmental groups (May sat with him at the award banquet’s head table).
Still, Mulroney couldn’t keep the fractious conservative movement together. In 1987, Preston Manning formed the Reform Party in response to Western grievances. And three years later, Mulroney’s Québec lieutenant, Lucien Bouchard, left to form the separatist Bloc Québécois. By 1993, with the government unpopular and mired in corruption scandals, Mulroney stepped down. His successor, Kim Campbell, led the Tories into a disastrous election, winning only two seats.
Meanwhile, Reform won 52 seats and the Bloc took 54.
The PC Party never recovered and the right would be in the wilderness for more than a decade, splintered into pieces. The person who would sew them back together was an obscure Reform Party policy wonk — Stephen Harper.
But his party would be very different from the PC Party.
Harper drives party away from the centre
The son of an Imperial Oil accountant, Harper was born in Toronto, but ended up in Calgary in the early 1980s, studying economics at the University of Calgary. There he fell under the influence of an emerging group of right-wing libertarian academics known as the “Calgary School.”
Prominent among them was political scientist Tom Flanagan, an American who holds controversial views about First Nations people — arguing they don’t deserve special status and opposing their land claims. Flanagan also embraced the neoliberalism of Austrian economist Friedrich Hayek, who was against government social programs. The Calgary School were the types who scorned Red Tories.
Flanagan feels a conservative party does not have to move to the centre to win. “I think what you need is a leader who will be adroit enough to avoid being typecast and therefore demonized as someone who is scary,” he told me. “You don’t need to go full throttle in embracing Red Toryism and marching in every gay pride parade that you can find. You just have to avoid being demonized.”
After university, Harper went to work for the Reform Party, even winning a seat in Parliament in 1993. But he soured on Preston Manning and didn’t enjoy being an opposition backbencher. He quit four years later to run the anti-tax National Citizens Coalition.
In 2002, he returned to politics, taking over as leader of the Canadian Alliance, and soon struck a deal with Peter MacKay, then leader of the rump PC Party, to form the Conservative Party of Canada.
However, according to former Tory MP Lee Richardson, who came from the PC party, “the current party is really the old base of Reform. There is really very little of the old Progressive Conservative party left.” Indeed, moderates increasingly felt unwelcome in this new party.
Still, Harper and Flanagan — who became the party’s campaign manager — realized that a Western-focused right-wing populist party would never win power, and they had to keep social conservatives under lock and key. They also had no interest in forming a “big tent” party fashioned after the old PC Party either.
Tories eschew "big tent" approach for slicing and dicing electorate
Instead, they focused on portraying Harper as a fiscally responsible steward of government who would not revisit issues such as abortion or gay marriage and be friendly to Québec. But more importantly, they would win over urban voters by wooing socially conservative new immigrants and develop tax policies that would appeal to certain voting segments of the populace — such as seniors or young families — in what is known as slicing and dicing the electorate.
“Harper never cared about getting the majority of Canadians to like him,” May says. “He figured out that if you suppressed the vote for other parties and get your own group highly motivated to vote so you could take it riding by riding, you could get a majority without ever getting the majority of the voting populace to vote for you.”
Harper was also lucky — the Liberal Party was in crisis. In 2006, with Paul Martin weighed down by the sponsorship and other scandals, the Tories eked out a minority. Harper lucked out again when the Liberals elected two milquetoast leaders back-to-back and sectarian feuding between Liberals and NDP split the progressive vote.
“Harper adapted to new realities,” says Dimitri Soudas, one of his former directors of communications. “Who would have thought that a Conservative government led by Stephen Harper would have ran a deficit — it runs counter to Conservative principles... He was the Conservative prime minister who bailed out the auto sector.”
In 2011, Harper finally won his majority. But this high-water mark coincided with him losing his political touch. He doubled down on his war with environmentalists and First Nations groups over resource extraction, introduced harsher punishment for criminals, including mandatory minimum sentencing (which was shot down by the Supreme Court), and picked a fight with Chief Justice Beverly McLachlin. The party also turned its back on new immigrants. “The party was tone deaf on issues like inclusion, it was tone deaf on the whole issue of Syrian refugees, it was tone deaf on the desire on the part of Canadians to see some investment and some growth in greater public sector leadership,” says Hugh Segal, former Tory senator and once chief of staff to both Brian Mulroney and Ontario premier Bill Davis.
One by one, Harper’s strongest cabinet ministers left, which may have been by design: Having watched Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin tear apart the Liberal party over succession, Harper wanted no pretenders to his throne.
And then, in 2012, the Mike Duffy scandal broke. The efforts of Harper and his PMO to bury the controversy only made his government appear scheming. Moreover, the scandal dominated Ottawa right up until the 2015 election, demoralizing his caucus.
Canadians tired of Harper by 2015
At that point, Harper’s government looked out of steam. The Tories’ campaign that year was riven by internal discord. “It wasn’t just a campaign that was badly run,” says former immigration minister Chris Alexander, “there were three brain trusts, three principals behind the campaign with a different vision of what it should be and Harper never chose what the focus should be.”
Tellingly, the campaign was marred by accusations of bigotry after the party called for setting up a “barbaric cultural practices” tip line and banning niqabs at citizenship ceremonies. Harper also attended rallies with the Ford brothers, Doug and Rob, despite former Toronto mayor Rob Ford being an international punch line due to his crack cocaine use, partying with drug dealers and escorts, and making racially and sexually insensitive remarks.
Not surprisingly, new immigrant voters flocked back to the Liberals. “I think it's absolutely fair to say Harper was much more focused on so-called 'new Canadian' communities in the 2011 campaign than he was in 2015,” agrees former Harper director of communications Andrew MacDougall.
Above all else, Canadians were just tired of Harper. “I tend to go with voter fatigue with Harper and a great campaign by Trudeau that turned the tide in 2015,” says political scientist Duane Bratt.
“He didn’t want to lose, he didn’t expect to lose, he didn’t intend on losing,” says U of T historian Anastakis. “He wasn’t planning his retirement or to do the walk in the snow or anything like that. It was taken from him in a way that he wasn’t happy about.”
Harper creates a political culture that is cruel and unforgiving
Another aspect of Harper’s legacy was creating an internal party culture that could be cruel and unforgiving with people who’d fallen out of favour. “It was very much his party and he ran it with an iron fist and ‘my way or the highway,’” recalls former Tory MP Richardson. “He was ruthless.”
Indeed, former Tory MP Bill Casey — who was thrown out of caucus in 2007 after a dispute with Harper — describes Harper as a bully, liberally using four-lettered words to underline his points, and not conferring with caucus.
Soon after the 2006 election, Casey recalls Harper coming into caucus and bluntly informing the MPs that “'Lookit, we have decided to make $1-billion in cuts and it’s going to affect most of your ridings and anybody who complains about it will suffer the consequences to your career as a Conservative politician.’ And then he sat down. He didn’t even tell us what they were.”
Nearly all of the Tories I spoke to echoed Casey’s assessment. “On the broader issue of dealing with people, yes I think there is a certain gracelessness on several occasions,” admits Alexander.
Examples of Harper’s harshness toward party members abound. Probably the most notorious is Helena Guergis, who became secretary of state for foreign affairs and sport, and later minister for the status of women. Guergis was so friendly with Harper and his wife Laureen that she dined and went to the movies with them. Guergis was even given the visible “special chair” behind Harper in the house.
But in 2009, Guergis’ husband was arrested for impaired driving, speeding and possession of cocaine. Allegations soon emerged that Guergis and her husband were socializing with a businessman of ill repute. A private detective, Derrick Snowdy, began shopping around a story of lurid allegations of political corruption about Guergis, suggesting she and her husband were being used by the businessman.
Harper quickly removed Guergis from cabinet and threw her out of caucus. He also called in the RCMP to investigate.
In the end, the cocaine possession and drunk driving charges against her husband were dropped. After a thorough investigation, the RCMP found no evidence supporting any of the corruption allegations against Guergis or her husband. In 2010, Snowdy admitted to a parliamentary committee “I have nothing — I have no evidence, or no information, with respect to conduct of Ms. Guergis in my possession or knowledge.”
By then it didn’t matter — her political career was over.
Mike Duffy thrown to the wolves to protect Harper
A similar pattern occurred when allegations of expense account abuses were levelled at Tory senators Duffy, Wallin and Patrick Brazeau. In the case of Duffy, he was pressured and threatened by Harper’s staff to admit he’d abused his expenses, despite Duffy protesting his innocence and the lack of any damaging evidence against him. Harper was simply trying to staunch the flood of bad press. Duffy was then charged with 31 counts of fraud, breach of trust and bribery charges — all of which the court found were baseless, acquitting him. The judge noted the PMO’s damage control plan “was not for the benefit of Senator Duffy but rather, it was for the benefit of the government and the PMO.”
Another loyal foot soldier who feels betrayed is Dean Del Mastro, the Tory MP from Peterborough, Ont., and Harper’s former parliamentary secretary. In 2014, he was charged with overspending during the 2008 election, accused of writing a personal cheque of $21,000 to cover an expense — which was over the limit — and then submitting an invoice for a much smaller amount. To this day, Del Mastro protests his innocence.
Del Mastro says he was offered a deal early on — to pay a $2,000 fine and plead guilty to a lesser charge. Del Mastro says when the PMO was told of the offer, he was informed if he accepted it, there would be no guarantee he would be allowed back into caucus. Del Mastro says Harper and the PMO wanted him to fight the charges as a way to distract the media from the on-going Duffy affair. “Any headline that was printed took the focus off the prime minister and put it on to me,” Del Mastro explains. If he had been allowed to stay in caucus, he says, he would have taken the deal.
Instead, he fought the charges — to disastrous effect. Del Mastro lost his seat, was sent to jail for 30 days and four months of house arrest, and was hit with a nearly $750,000 legal bill.
“Before I was put in shackles it was not just the media that was after me, it was Stephen’s own people that were actively jamming things in my back as Stephen drove the bus over me repeatedly,” Del Mastro says. “It was pretty lonely... For my family, it was devastating.”
Harper continues to meddle in the party after he loses
After his 2015 loss, Harper lingered in Ottawa before moving to Calgary where he opened Harper & Associates Consulting. He and his wife began building a large house in Alberta’s foothills.
But he couldn’t stay away from politics. In 2016, he joined the board of the powerful and secretive Conservative Fund, which raises money for the party (including $30.8 million last year alone). And in 2018, he was elected chairman of the International Democrat Union (IDU), a global alliance of conservative and centre-right parties.
He was also carrying grudges. In a 2018 interview that recently came to light, Harper claimed that “a major reason I am not the prime minister of Canada” was the lack of a right-wing Fox News-like news outlet in Canada and because the rest of the media were too liberal and “would not cover my announcements, they would not cover any gaffe of my opponent, they scrubbed it out. They actually met every day to coordinate their coverage, they would not run any ad I had showing footage depicting my opponent in an unfavourable light… We literally were censored out of the coverage.”
Reporters and pundits across the political spectrum mocked Harper’s claim, as did some of his former staffers.
Fourteen candidates ran for the leadership in 2017 — none of whom were stars. It was also evident that moderates who might appeal to urban voters were out of favour. When leadership contender Michael Chong came out in support of a carbon tax during one debate in Edmonton, he was vociferously booed. Chong came in fifth. “(The party) needs to grow. It clearly needs to make inroads with millennials,” Chong told me. “That’s why we need to have strong policies on climate change going into the next election.”
Hugh Segal believes the party doesn’t seem interested in pandering to voters outside of its base. “While they didn’t do all that badly in terms of seats and total vote (last year),” he says, “they still could not penetrate in any meaningful way the 905 (area code), the 416, the 613, the 902, the 514 — all those areas didn’t produce anything for them and that’s where, for better or for worse, the vast majority of Canadian voters live. And that became part of the problem.”
Or as another Tory insider told me about the current caucus: “It’s a rump of old whiteys, small-town mayors and that’s not a recipe for success in the future.”
Indeed, the party is so conservative that former prime minister Campbell was quoted in Maclean’s last year saying she couldn’t survive in today’s party because: “It’s too intolerant; it’s too right-wing.”
Tories seem to have written off Québec, despite it turning to right
Moreover, the party seems to have written off Québec altogether, despite the fact Québeckers are turning to the right. “In Québec at the moment there is a strong conservative movement which is not close to the Conservative Party,” says Université de Montréal political scientist Christian Nadeau. “I think the main reason (Quebeckers) don’t vote for the Conservative Party is that (the party is) too stupid to investigate what is going on here. They don’t care.”
Instead, the party chose Scheer, a social conservative and someone so unremarkable Harper hadn’t put him in any of his cabinets. As leader, Scheer regularly consulted with Harper and Kenney before making important decisions. He then ran on a platform that was a carbon copy of Harper’s from four years earlier.
“I think (the party) is out of step perhaps with the political times,” agrees Jim Armour, Harper’s former director of communications in the early 2000s and an Ottawa lobbyist. “In many ways what the Conservatives are going through now is what the Liberals went through when Paul Martin lost. They tended to fight the same campaign… So the Liberals continually ran the same campaign under Stéphane Dion and Michael Ignatieff. And the Conservatives essentially ran the same campaign with Andrew Scheer.”
Harper, meanwhile, is showing no signs of mellowing: On more than one occasion he’s showered praise on the authoritarian Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán — under whom anti-Semitism and anti-Roma bigotry has flourished (“The IDU and I are looking forward to working with you,” was one of Harper’s messages to Orban). He’s attacked Chancellor Angela Merkel for letting a million refugees into Germany, praised his “great friend” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is currently on trial for corruption, and defended President Donald Trump against attacks leveled at him by French President Emmanuel Macron.
Meanwhile, the current crop of contenders for the Tory leadership is singing from Harper’s hymnbook. The scuttlebutt is Harper supports O’Toole, who launched his campaign by attacking MacKay as “Liberal-lite” and promising to take on “cancel culture and the radical left.” O’Toole even dropped his promise to cut subsidies to the oil industry. MacKay, meanwhile, felt pressured to apologize for the “stinking albatross” remark about Scheer and has flip-flopped on LGBQT rights — all to pander to the party’s base.
Many Tories I spoke with say to win the leadership you must woo the base before pivoting toward being more moderate once you win. Michael Chong seems to hold out this hope. When I pointed out to him the party’s position on climate change and carbon taxes has remained unchanged since Harper’s time, he conceded: “I agree the party had not been there on climate change. That’s one of the big reasons I believe we lost the last election… I agree we are not there on the environment yet, but that’s no reason to believe we will never get there.”
Others I spoke with suggest the Harper playbook merely needs to be fine-tuned by a more skillful leader. “I don’t think we need to be centrist to win,” one consultant working for O’Toole told me. “We just need to be competent and want to win. Andrew Scheer, quite frankly, is a loser and didn’t have the fire in his belly, didn’t have the winning instinct and didn’t do what he had to do to win.”
Others are skeptical. “We have stayed too narrow,” says former Harper cabinet minister Chris Alexander. “We have remained a kind of party in the midst of a hangover after a fairly crushing defeat in 2015. And while there have been a few half-serious attempts to push things to open the door and in a new direction, they haven’t yet borne fruit. So I don’t think it’s a party that fully reflects — in its membership, its idea or its debate — the national conversation that Canadians want to have. And that’s what you need to be to win.”