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john ibbitson


Conservative voters concluded, by the narrowest of margins, that Andrew Scheer's sensible conservatism was a safer choice than the dogmatic libertarianism of Maxime Bernier. They are probably right.

The genial former Speaker of the House of Commons, despite a seasoning of socially conservative policies, is likely to be more saleable against Justin Trudeau's Liberals in the next election – much more a Stephen Harper 2.0, but with a smile.

Common sense won out over ideology, organization and fundraising. In a mature party, it usually does.

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Conservatives "always will be the party of prosperity, not envy," Mr. Scheer told a boisterous crowd that clearly enjoyed, and was probably relieved by, the result. "The party that always represents taxpayers, not connected Ottawa insiders."

And in his first swipe at Liberals as leader of the party, he declared: "Trudeau's Liberals are so focused on photo ops, selfies, that they don't care if their policies hurt, and not help, the middle class. Sunny ways don't pay the bills." Mr. Bernier never said it as well.

Still, it was close. Achingly so, for Mr. Bernier. And here's a message for anyone who believes that grassroots Conservatives are intolerant, poorly educated and out of touch: Saturday night, almost 50 per cent of them voted for a libertarian lawyer from Quebec.

In the end, though, Mr. Bernier's proposed elimination of a federal role in health care, the planned savage spending cuts, his wish to eviscerate the CBC and CRTC, not to mention ending supply management, were too much. He simply could not attract enough second- or third-ballot support through the 13 rounds of voting.

Mr. Scheer has a few odd planks in his platform – cutting funding to universities that don't defend free speech, whatever that means; eliminating the now-substantial federal deficit in only two years. But in demeanour and approach, he is the calmer, more managerial, safer choice.

Should the Liberals stumble, especially on the economy, Mr. Scheer more than Mr. Bernier is best equipped to tell voters: "Don't you think you should hand the job of managing the store back to people who know how to run it?"

And although very few votes were cast Saturday, Mr. Scheer's final speech Friday night was so effective, and Mr. Bernier's so poor, and the result so close, that one wonders, one wonders … What matters for Conservatives is that the party left the Toronto Congress Centre after a clean race that produced what, for most, will be a satisfying, or at least I-can-live-with-it, outcome. And they will head into the next election with a united front.

When big-name candidates such as former cabinet ministers Peter MacKay and Jason Kenney elected not to run, critics discounted the race as nothing more than a contest to choose a placeholder for the party until after the 2019 election, which Liberals were certain to win.

But "placeholder" candidates turned out to be capable performers with carefully considered policies who, for the most part, focused on building their own campaigns rather than tearing each other down.

Almost 260,000 Canadians took out a Conservative Party membership, and more than 141,000 of them voted – an impressive number.

The social-conservative wing of the party, rallying to anti-abortion candidate Brad Trost, received a solid 14 per cent of the vote. That said, when it became a four-candidate race, he placed last. Socons will continue to demand a louder voice, and they will remain inside the party, but they will not control it.

Michael Chong, who called for a national carbon tax, placed fifth, affirming that the progressive wing of the Conservative Party is very much in eclipse. But he remains a committed Conservative. The PC wing of the party is still inside the tent.

Kellie "Canadian values" Leitch's poor showing – 8 per cent of the vote, overall – affirmed that Conservatives remain a party of yes, not no, for new Canadians.

Mr. Bernier will remain a powerful force. Yes, another Westerner leads the Conservatives – Mr. Scheer is from Saskatchewan – but the result affirms the Conservative Party takes Quebec seriously.

To all of them, and to everyone they represent, Mr. Scheer promised: "Every kind of conservative is welcome in this party and this party belongs to you."

So the base is energized, the coalition is intact, everyone is united behind the new leader. Many a Conservative will tell you that's as much as any party could ask for after a leadership campaign. Many a Liberal would agree.

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