Stephen Harper's Quebec strategy now hinges on a duo of dynamic ministers who will have to find a new way to spread the Conservative message and connect with the province's recalcitrant electorate, party officials say.
As he shuffled his cabinet on Monday, the Prime Minister replaced his Quebec lieutenant, Christian Paradis, who had held the position for nearly five years. Party insiders said Tuesday that Mr. Paradis, who used to be the minister of industry, did not seem to relish the organizational work that came with being a lead regional minister, and is looking forward to focusing on his new International Development portfolio.
"It's like a pebble was removed from his shoes," a Conservative official said of Mr. Paradis's exit as the lead Quebec minister.
In his place, Mr. Harper offered promotions to a pair of ministers – Denis Lebel and Steven Blaney – who will aim to provide a more energetic presence in Quebec, where the party has been dropping in the polls and faces an uphill battle after falling to five seats in 2011. Insiders said that Mr. Harper is looking to renew the party's approach in Quebec, and hinted that more changes are on their way.
Conservative officials said the pair of ministers will provide more impact in Quebec, where Mr. Paradis failed to connect with enough voters to help his party to build on its 2006 breakthrough in the province. The Conservatives not only lost ground in 2011, they also saw three of their ministers lose their seats, which seriously limited their ability to get out their message in the media.
The Conservatives have struggled to connect in Quebec over the years, with their traditional power base west of the province and their positions sometimes at odds with the mainstream consensus. While the government's main message is not expected to change between now and the 2015 election, party officials hope that their fortunes can improve with new spokesmen on the front lines.
The new Quebec lieutenant is Mr. Lebel, the former mayor of Roberval, in the Lac St-Jean region, who was first elected in a by-election in 2007 and entered cabinet the following year. Although he lost the Transport portfolio on Monday, he remains the Minister of Infrastructure and the minister in charge of the federal economic development agency in Quebec, giving him control over billions of dollars in federal funds.
He is set to continue to make announcements and meet with municipal officials across the province, which will help in his plan to improve the Conservative government's visibility.
However, the rising star in Mr. Harper's Quebec strategy is Mr. Blaney, who moved from Veterans' Affairs into the portfolio of Public Safety.
First elected in 2006, Mr. Blaney entered cabinet only in 2011, but he has obviously impressed the Prime Minister with his political style and his work ethic. The 48-year-old engineer wears a perpetual smile in his public appearances and is always willing to spread the Conservative gospel in Quebec.
Mr. Blaney will now be a voice for the Harper government's law-and-order agenda that the Conservatives feel can win support in some parts of Quebec, especially outside of Montreal. In addition, Mr. Blaney can be counted on to appear at photo ops across the province in his role as the minister responsible for the RCMP.
The Prime Minister obviously felt it was a time for a change for his party.
"As you know, we have a small team in Quebec, which we hope to grow the next time around," Mr. Harper told reporters on Monday.
Mr. Lebel's power base is located in the Saguenay-Lac-St-Jean region, where the Conservative Party lost the seat of Jonquière-Alma in the last election. Mr. Blaney is the MP for Lévis-Bellechasse, just across the St. Lawrence from Quebec City where the party was the main political force until an NDP sweep of the area as part of the 2011 Orange Wave.
The two ministers will now be expected to work hard to regain at least some of those seats. Still, Conservative officials are cautious when they talk about their chances in Quebec, pointing out that they stand at about 10 per cent in the polls, down from the 16.5 per cent share of the vote that they received in the last election.
In his first comments as the Quebec lieutenant after the shuffle, Mr. Lebel said the job ahead was "of titanic proportions."
Mr. Paradis, Mr. Blaney and Mr. Lebel were not available for interviews on Tuesday, and the party officials who agreed to speak did so on the condition of anonymity.