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jeffrey simpson

Conservative leader Stephen Harper speaks at a rally during a campaign stop in Quebec City on Wednesday, September 30, 2015.Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press

That the Conservatives have trotted out former minister Stockwell Day and retiring minister James Moore to campaign in British Columbia illustrates fundamental and revealing facts about the party.

The Conservatives have the weakest cabinet in living memory, its weakness deepened with the death of Jim Flaherty and the decisions of Mr. Moore, John Baird, Shelly Glover and Peter MacKay to not seek re-election.

The Conservatives also have a painfully thin back bench, with very few MPs anyone might consider serious ministerial timber. And they have the poorest lot of local candidates in this election.

Of course, there are some notable exceptions to this observation. But travelling across the country, and studying the backgrounds of candidates for all parties, leads inescapably to the conclusion that the Conservative list is the weakest.

Any party in office for nine years will experience churn. People get tired, burned-out. They look for a different, less-stressful life. No more jet planes; no more public meetings; no more hassles. That those well-known ministers bowed out, as did a couple dozen other Tory MPs, could be considered normal.

But for two observations. First, being a cabinet minister under Stephen Harper is to have so little leeway for initiative, the government being controlled by him and his advisers, that being a minister isn't what it used to be. Ministers, at least the top rung of them, used to be somebodies. Now, they lie between being somebodies and nobodies, closer actually to the latter than the former.

Second, either the party made little attempt to recruit strong candidates (except in five or six ridings in Quebec, where such candidates did appear), or the party tried and failed, since very accomplished people would have heard how things work inside the Harper government and decided being told what to have for lunch wasn't for them.

Think back to cabinets of yesteryear, Progressive Conservative and Liberal. Even the most forceful of prime ministers had a bevy of strong ministers. For Pierre Trudeau, it would have been people such as Allan MacEachen, Marc Lalonde, Jean-Luc Pépin, Donald Macdonald, John Turner (for a while), Lloyd Axworthy and many others. For Brian Mulroney, his strong ministers would have included, among many, Don Mazankowski, John Crosbie, Michael Wilson, Flora MacDonald (for a term), Jake Epp, Joe Clark.

Today, in the Harper cabinet, is there even one Mazankowski or Lalonde, or anyone close to their standing, influence and reputation? The question is rhetorical – with the possible exception of Defence Minister Jason Kenney, who is a spear carrier of enormous energy and verbal dexterity, obviously running to become leader of the party post-Harper.

This is the Harper Party. He, more than anyone, created it. He runs it with an iron fist directly or through his subalterns. His is the public face and voice of the party, such that there is almost no room left for anyone else. To the Prime Minister will go entirely the credit for victory and, if it comes to that, will come the entire blame for defeat.

The hollowing out of Conservative talent might not be fatal in a general election where local candidates generally can sway up to only about 5 per cent of the vote. If, as regularly happens, Tory candidates across the country refuse to do media interviews or do not show up for all-candidates' debates, such no-shows are regrettable but not all that damaging. Given their thin résumés and preference to read from scripts or talking points, perhaps it is better that they do not show up.

Moreover, there are about 100 or so ridings in which the Conservatives won by so much – 25 points or more – in 2011 that the proverbial "yellow dog" could have won.

A recent and careful poll of Manitoba by Probe Research (with a sample size of 1,000) illustrates the point. It shows the Conservatives are 14 points provincewide below their share of the vote in 2011. But outside Winnipeg, in rural Manitoba, where the Conservatives topped the Liberals by 64 to 7 per cent in 2011, they now lead by "only" 16 points, 49 to 33. These are the "yellow dog ridings" where the quality of Conservative candidates counts for almost nothing. (The New Democratic Party is down everywhere in Manitoba.)

Strong leader. Weak cabinet. Poor backbenchers. Generally ordinary candidates, at best. There are exceptions, to repeat, to this characterization. But they are exceptions. So bring on Messrs. Day and Moore to campaign.