Andrew Scheer had a golden opportunity to become this country’s prime minister. Instead, he so badly failed to win over new supporters that it should force on his Conservative Party a recognition it needs leadership capable of reaching further beyond its base.
Mr. Scheer’s supporters will try to spin it as a victory that Justin Trudeau’s Liberals were reduced to a minority government in Monday’s election, and appear to have fallen slightly behind the Tories in popular support. Indeed, as Mr. Scheer himself alluded to in his reasonably cheery concession speech, it’s a better result for the Conservatives in Mr. Scheer’s first campaign at the helm than most imagined when he took the job in 2017.
But that was when Mr. Trudeau was enjoying a protracted honeymoon that made him look politically invincible – before the SNC-Lavalin affair, the blackface and brownface photos, the growing rifts in national unity, the general onset of early fatigue with the Liberal Prime Minister.
This election was there to be won, if the Conservatives were capable of convincing a significant share of voters who had grown disenchanted with Mr. Trudeau that there was decent reason to vote for Mr. Scheer instead.
That they were unable to do so, with voters seeming to like Mr. Scheer less the more they saw of him, speaks to fundamental problems with a party that has all but embraced being actively unappealing to a majority of Canadians.
There will be a temptation to point to specific tactical problems to explain why they fell short, especially during a messy final few days.
But for the most part, the Conservatives executed the campaign they wanted, with a combination of attacks on the Liberals, affordability promises centred around the elimination of Mr. Trudeau’s carbon-pricing regime and some red meat for their base such as a promised reduction in foreign-aid funding.
And yet, not once during the campaign did they seem to be nudging their support upward. Their best days came when the leaders of the Bloc Québécois or the New Democratic Party performed well enough to suggest those parties might pull enough seats and votes away from the Liberals for the Conservatives to squeak through. And their best numbers on election night – the popular vote edge – likely had as much to do with declining turnout among Liberal voters as the fairly modest increase in Conservative votes.
It was as though the Conservatives lacked the agency to do anything more than mobilize their existing supporters and hope the splits among their opponents would align just so.
Mr. Scheer will personally wear much of the blame for that, to some extent deservedly.
He is not a terribly inspiring campaigner, on the stump or in debates. His stridently conservative past stances on matters such as same-sex marriage and abortion came back to haunt him, even though he showed no interest in fighting on such issues now. And ultimately, as leader, it was his decision not to take a single major policy position that might have caused voters to see his party in a fresh light – to run on the same agenda Stephen Harper might have, despite the needs and concerns of the electorate shifting.
But Mr. Scheer does not hold his party’s leadership because he staged a hostile takeover. He won it largely because he seemed likeliest to hold together the support coalition that Mr. Harper had built, and avoid alienating many core members of the party’s base.
This election proved that those supporters might need to be challenged, if they want to see their party get back to government.
No issue better encapsulated that reality than Mr. Scheer’s positioning on climate change, which emerged as the biggest and most consequential policy gap between the Conservatives and the other major parties this campaign.
Among reliable Conservative supporters, opposing carbon pricing was something that everyone from Albertans worried about the resource sector to Atlantic Canadians worried about the cost of living could get behind. So Mr. Scheer ran on a flimsy environmental platform that opposed the Liberals’ plans to reduce emissions – not just the carbon tax, but other measures such as a new clean-fuel standard – but offered no serious alternative.
Among many others whose votes the party could have been seeking, that lack of seriousness may have been a deal breaker. And considering that younger voters feel the most fear for the future of the planet, it’s only going to become more limiting.
That doesn’t mean it will now be obvious or easy for the Conservatives to adapt their approach to that issue – or many others – to broaden their appeal.
Seeking to keep his job, Mr. Scheer may feel the need to play more to the base than ever. And if he were to be replaced, it’s that base that would choose his replacement.
But he or whoever else serves as leader would be doing Conservatives much more of a favour by declining to feed a sense of grievance coming out of Mr. Trudeau getting to keep office, and instead trying harder to build bridges between their party and everyone else.
The Conservatives could resist change and still pull off the odd surprise victory, if their opponents’ votes and seats split work out perfectly for them. Better for their sake would be to take their inability to get back into power this time, even with Mr. Trudeau damaged and the Bloc and NDP doing their part, as evidence they need to start aiming higher.
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