A political party is most vulnerable when leaderless after an election defeat. Yet the Conservative Party appears to be in pretty good shape as partisans gather Thursday in Ottawa for the annual Manning Centre Conference. That conference is expected to serve as the unofficial overture to the leadership race that lies ahead.
In the past, Conservatives often spent more time fighting each other than they spent fighting the Liberals. Diefenbaker versus Camp. Mulroney versus Clark. Reform versus PCs. The Rebel Alliance versus the Canadian Alliance.
But this time "we have a party that is deeply committed to remaining united," says Garnett Genuis, a 29-year-old rookie MP from Edmonton. He believes the absence of a permanent leader may be a good thing, since "the discipline that a group collectively imposes on itself when it comes to remaining united is always going to be more powerful than the discipline imposed by a leader."
Despite losing the Oct. 19 election, membership numbers remain robust at above 100,000, according to a party official who spoke on background. Fundraising in January was in line with other Januaries outside an election year. And most local riding associations are active and organized.
The party is cohesive, according to Michael Chong, a Greater-Toronto-Area MP and potential leadership candidate, because the ideological divide between Red and Blue Tories has largely healed.
"I think Conservatives know what Conservatives stand for," he said in an interview. The lowest possible level of taxation consistent with good government; balanced budgets except in emergencies; a federal government that focuses on fiscal policy, foreign policy, defence and national security while respecting provincial autonomy – these are the core priorities of the Conservative Party as shaped by Stephen Harper, and his most lasting legacy.
Preston Manning, former Reform Party leader and creator of the Manning Centre, attributes this new-found sense of unity to "the West's political maturing." The sense of alienation that drove Western conservatives through the Reform and Alliance years has dissipated after a decade in power, he believes. Westerners realize "they're now a major force politically and economically and have a greater impact on the health of the country as a whole."
That said, party members seem subdued, even downcast, in the wake of the October defeat. Longtime Tory loyalist Tim Powers detects "a sense of listlessness," within party ranks.
One reason could be that Conservatives have nothing to say on the major social issues that dominate the Liberal government agenda, such as fighting climate change.
"The party got stuck in some ruts of their own making," says Mark Cameron, a former adviser to Mr. Harper. He now heads up Canadians for Clean Prosperity, an NGO that advocates for market-friendly approaches to fighting global warming. Leadership candidates will need to offer convincing Conservative alternatives to Liberal policies on the environment, indigenous issues, health and education policy and more if the party hopes to once again dominate the national agenda.
Then there is the Trump question. The Conservatives in the last election alienated immigrant voters through the niqab debate, the "barbaric cultural practices hotline" and legislation that could strip dual citizens of their Canadian citizenship. Are Conservatives willing to stoke a populist, nativist revolt a la Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump?
No, says Kevin O'Leary, a well-known entrepreneur who shares Mr. Trump's penchant for reality TV shows, and who is thinking of taking a run at the Conservative leadership.
"Any politician in Canada, regardless of party, who loses that DNA that all Canadians believe they have, this concept of a melting pot, of a society that's very inclusive – you touch that and you are immediately dismissed," Mr. O'Leary said in an interview, pointing out that he is of both Irish and Lebanese extraction.
Although the leadership vote is scheduled for May 17, 2017, candidates are already testing the waters, and the subject will dominate the talk in the corridors at the Manning Centre Conference.
Ontario MP Kellie Leitch – who is already working hard to put together a campaign organization – former Progressive Conservative Leader Peter MacKay, former cabinet ministers Tony Clement, Jason Kenney, Erin O'Toole, Lisa Raitt and Michelle Rempel are all contemplating a run.
Yet there is also a strong desire within the party for a generational shift in leadership, though who that leader might be remains a mystery.
A broadly inclusive, socially engaged Conservative Party with a new, young, dynamic leader. Wouldn't that be a thing?