The Conservatives may have just dodged a bullet.
Andrew Scheer, the Saskatchewan MP and former House of Commons speaker they have chosen as their new leader, could struggle in all sorts of ways. It won't be easy to reconcile the wishes of hardline social conservatives who helped put him over the top with those of everyone else, or marry his Western populism to the imperatives of winning over suburban voters, or match Justin Trudeau's charisma and retail-politics skills.
But even if he doesn't come within a sniff of the Prime Minister's Office next election, Mr. Scheer – congenial, adaptable, with good political antennae – at least seems suited to holding together a young party with ideological and geographical coalitions that could easily fracture if nobody works hard to hold them together.
It would be hard to say the same about Maxime Bernier, the candidate who led for 12 of the 13 rounds of ranked-ballot results announced on Saturday, especially for anyone who watched the way his campaign behaved around the party's convention in suburban Toronto this weekend.
Even well before that, there was ample reason to wonder if Mr. Bernier was the right fit to lead a big-tent party.
His campaign was admirable, to a point. Whereas leadership races typically encourage any serious contender to run primarily on platitudes for fear of scaring off would-be supporters, Mr. Bernier passionately put forward a bold libertarian agenda consistent with his own beliefs.
Beyond just being upfront about his priorities, though, Mr. Bernier seemed unusually hell-bent on making them everyone else's. Even though a policy convention in 2018 is supposed to help shape the next Conservative election platform, Mr. Bernier insisted that his leadership platform – which included ending supply management, the federal role in health care, the current equalization formula, any and all corporate welfare, and much of Canada's traditional commitment to foreign aid – would immediately become the party's agenda.
It was possible, until recently, for Conservatives who thought much of that would be electoral poison to tell themselves that Mr. Bernier was exaggerating his resolve for the benefit of his support base. He couldn't be serious that caucus members, only a few of whom supported his leadership bid, would be forced to immediately start selling a platform into which they'd had no input. Surely, like most rookie party leaders, Mr. Bernier would seek to accommodate a range of viewpoints within his party, and engage a cross-section of talent – including those who had supported rival candidates – in doing so.
But then, in the days before the results were announced (when the vast majority of ballots had been received by mail), came a premature victory lap as unsettling to fellow Conservatives as it was bizarre.
While Mr. Bernier's campaign team spread word that victory was all but certain, one of its top officials decided to publicly share expectations for what would come afterward. Speaking to iPolitics, which published a story presenting him as Mr. Bernier's "enforcer" akin to Jenni Byrne for Stephen Harper, deputy campaign manager Emrys Graefe offered that Mr. Bernier's loyalists would have "dibs on the good positions first" after he became leader. To the extent that others might be given jobs, he suggested they wouldn't be backers of Mr. Scheer, who was running second at the time. As for policy, Mr. Graefe dismissed the idea that any Conservative MPs would disagree with Mr. Bernier's agenda, except for "some silly old fuddy-duddies" – Mr. Scheer explicitly included – "who believe they have a clue about things out in the real world and they don't."
If Mr. Bernier disagreed with any of this, it was not apparent. Mr. Graefe was by his candidate's side as Mr. Bernier left his hospitality event on Friday night, after much of the interview had been published. On Saturday morning, an official fundraising e-mail from his campaign informed Conservatives that Mr. Bernier would be keeping a list of everyone who had supported and donated to his campaign, and "today is your last chance" to get on it. From behind the scenes that day, there were accounts of his team threatening party staff and volunteers.
To make Conservatives further wonder what they might be getting themselves into, there was Mr. Bernier's peculiar performance earlier Friday evening. Among the 13 candidates, he was alone in not deigning to address party members with something approaching a convention speech. Before stumbling through a few brief, seemingly unprepared remarks, he used most of his allotted ten minutes to show an amateurish video that looked like an attack ad on himself – ominous music accompanying grainy footage and thumping reminders of controversial policy positions.
It was as though Mr. Bernier's campaign was suggesting that being unpalatable even to many members of his own party was a virtue.
It would have been anything but, had he won. A quirk of our political system is that parties' general memberships elect leaders who are then accountable primarily to caucuses in which they may lack much initial support. Most leaders quickly try to get everyone on board; Mr. Bernier was signalling that he would not. It was possible to imagine a rapid breakdown of party unity – as befell Stockwell Day when he led the Canadian Alliance, except maybe before Mr. Bernier even got to an election.
If he had remained truer to his own appeal as a politician, disaster scenarios would have been less foreseeable. Mr. Bernier's strength, as an MP who slowly bounced back from an embarrassing personal scandal that got him fired as foreign affairs minister, was as an earnest advocate for his small-government beliefs. He was "Mad Max" because he was willing to stand up for controversial ideas, not because he was mad with power before he even had it.
Perhaps now he'll return to his old happy-warrior role. And maybe he'll find a receptive audience, for a few of his ideas, in a new leader looking to make sure libertarians stay in the tent. If so, it will show why Mr. Scheer is better suited to the job than Mr. Bernier would have been.