Nik Nanos is The Globe and Mail's pollster and chairman of Nanos Research. Follow him on Twitter at @niknanos.
The House of Commons is about to reconvene and it's an opportunity for Rona Ambrose to help remake a tired and sometimes angry Conservative image. When Canadians tune in to Question Period, they will likely be asking themselves: Is this the same old Tory crew with the same old tricks or, perhaps, something different? Defeated, relegated to Opposition but with a significant number of seats in the House and a respectable core of voters who stuck with them during the last federal election, the Conservatives face a number of obstacles, not all of which are insurmountable. Likewise, NDP leader Tom Mulcair will have his own personal political drama to manage.
In the face of continued positive numbers for the Trudeau Liberals, the challenges for Ms. Ambrose and Mr. Mulcair include connecting with voters and trying to upset the Liberal apple cart. A look at the Nanos tracking numbers and the current political environment suggest it will be no easy task.
On the numbers front, Justin Trudeau rides high as the preferred choice as Prime Minister, scores much higher on being perceived as having the qualities of a good political leader compared to his competitors, and benefits from the spotlight of being PM. He has framed himself as a new, vigorous leader, a man of change, on the move, engaging Canadians and the world with his vision of a progressive, compassionate Canada.
For Rona Ambrose, the new interim leader of the Conservative Party and Leader of the Official Opposition, the tracking suggests she currently remains undefined, with many Canadians not having a formed opinion of her. This represents both an opportunity and a threat. The upcoming sitting of the House will likely have some Canadians tuning in to size up Ms. Ambrose in terms of tone, substance and political style. For the Conservatives, it represents a key opportunity to start the process of trying to reshape their image – falling back on past behaviour and style is likely the surest way to hold the core but limit growth, the political equivalent of cutting off the nose to spite the face. The main challenge of the Conservatives may not be their interim leader but reconciling their role as the Official Opposition with being the government with legacy political decisions the Liberals are trying to manage. The controversial arms sale to Saudi Arabia, a regime with a very poor human-rights record, is a case in point. A Harper Conservative government thought this was a good deal; a Conservative Opposition, it seems, now contorts itself to question the very deal that it designed, advocated and defended.
The challenge for Mr. Mulcair is quite different. It's about managing his personal political narrative. Canada's once prosecutor-in-chief as the former leader of the Opposition now faces judgment by the hands of his own party. The twist is that even though Mr. Mulcair has hit a new one-year low on the preferred Prime Minister tracking, he still does quite well personally, with more than one of two Canadians saying he has the qualities of a good political leader. In the election he was outflanked by the progressive Liberals and squeezed in a "time for change" movement. The challenge is that questions about his personal political future – will he stay and survive or be replaced? – will likely overshadow his ability in the short-term to reinvigorate the NDP.
On balance, this points to a situation where perhaps the greatest threat to the Liberals in the House may be the Liberals themselves – making mistakes, not managing expectations effectively, or bumping up against the realities of the tough decisions all governments have to make. In a twisted sense, both Ms. Ambrose and Mr. Mulcair need the Trudeau government to have a misstep.
Why? In our current environment we will have one former leader of the Opposition whose previous performance in the House was strong but who will be dogged by a narrative about his future. Then there will be Rona Ambrose. As interim Tory leader, she is the de facto new face of the Conservative Party but is hampered by the difficulty of defending and sometimes attacking the policies of the previous Harper government. It might well turn out to be a very difficult circle to politically square.