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Jeffrey Simpson: For Tories, a long list of difficult questions

Think about Shakespeare's plays. The main actors are at the front of the stage delivering their lines. The audience pays attention to them, for they are the key players in the drama.

Behind them, sometimes, are arrayed various players garbed in togas, or breastplates, or peasants' attire, or nobles' robes. They don't utter many lines, except for the occasional collective grunt or cheer. The audience pays them little, if any, heed.

So it will be in Canadian politics for a long time after the Oct. 19 election. Justin Trudeau's government will be front and centre for many, many months, with Liberal dramatis personae delivering all the important lines. Conservatives and New Democrats will cluster at the rear of the political stage, grunting and muttering, with almost no one paying attention.

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For the Conservatives, the former government, recognizing this forthcoming period of prolonged marginality could be a way of returning eventually to centre stage, but only if they think hard enough about why the vast majority of Canadians wanted to see their backs.

Having recently been centre stage, the Conservatives might be tempted to figure out quickly how best to return there. Nothing could be more counterproductive.

They should use their prolonged period of being marginal players to figure out what they should say when centre stage truly beckons again, because for now, and for the foreseeable future, the vast majority of Canadians don't want to hear from or about Conservatives, so bitter is their memory of the Harper years.

Already, however, a list of former Harper cabinet ministers is being mooted, containing potential contenders. Media reports had suggested that former foreign minister John Baird was contemplating a return to politics, having declared not long ago that he was through with the game. Mercifully, he squelched that speculation.

All of the names being floated are holdovers from the Harper years. They were ministers in Harper governments. They helped frame the government's policies – at least they did at the margin, given that so many decisions were framed by Stephen Harper. But they defended those policies. They did so in the verbally pugilistic, take-no-prisoners style so typical of the Harper party. They were, are and will be Harperites, although some will try to put some light between themselves and their past.

Leadership puts the proverbial cart before the horse. What the Conservatives need – this is the cart – is to ask themselves at length and in depth: Where did we go wrong? Was it just that we overstayed our welcome and "time for a change" defeated us?

Or was there something deeper about who we were, what we stood for, how we made decisions, how we communicated them to Canadians, how we related to other Canadian institutions such as provinces, the business community, aboriginals, the news media, officers of Parliament, the civil service, non-governmental groups?

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Why were we at daggers drawn with scientists, civil servants, "experts," journalists, the cultural community, even part of the business community (telecommunications, railroads)? Is that where we want to be as Conservatives?

How did we manage to fritter away about a fifth of the support we had secured in the 2011 election by voting day 2015? Why are we by far the least-favoured second-choice party, with the fewest number of people who would consider voting for us? Is it the correct strategy to try for a maximum of 40 per cent of the electors?

The list of questions runs much longer, and thinking through the list must take a long time. Only then will the Conservatives be ready to figure out which horse should pull the cart.

The debate must not be directed and led exclusively by Harper holdovers, because other voices might emerge. There might be sitting or former premiers. There might be someone who catches the party's attention from among new MPs, a few of whom from Quebec had reputations beyond politics. There could be someone from outside politics, such as a lawyer and businessman named Brian Mulroney who contested the Progressive Conservative leadership in 1976. No one knows if he would have done better than the winner of that convention, Joe Clark.

The time will come when Canadians might be interested in what centre-stage Conservatives will say, but that time is far off. In the meantime, figure out the lines, rather than choosing the main actor.

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