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To wreck the Conservatives’ chances, he doesn’t even need to win a single seat, writes Margaret Wente.

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There are losers, and then there are sore losers. Maxime Bernier is the second kind. He’s always acted as if it was he who should have won the leadership race last year. He came so close! Andrew Scheer edged him out because Mr. Scheer was everybody’s second choice. Mr. Scheer is a colourless, diligent consensus-builder with no bold vision – a family man in off-the-rack suits who’s popular with social conservatives and dairy farmers. In other words, in temperament and character, Mr. Scheer is about as far as you can get from his swaggering opponent. Mr. Bernier never disguised his view that the better man lost.

Yet, apart from personal ambition, it’s hard to fathom just what strategy drove Mr. Bernier to stomp out the door. Does he really believe the Conservatives are “morally corrupt”? Where is the existential motivation that prompted Lucien Bouchard to break with the federalists and found the Bloc Québécois, or Preston Manning to found the Reform Party in the name of western power? Where’s the band of true believers who are committed to the cause? Sure, dairy subsidies are not good policy. But that’s no hill to die on – especially during trade negotiations with the U.S., when dairy subsidies are presumably a bargaining chip. In that case, why throw in the towel for nothing?

So what’s the end game? Mr. Bernier can’t possibly win the next election. He’d be lucky to win a seat or three. Maybe he believes he can somehow wind up as Conservative leader. Maybe he thinks he can make the Conservatives lose so badly that they’ll renounce Mr. Scheer and invite him back to unify the party he has just tried to destroy. Seems delusional. But so is Mr. Bernier’s own amour-propre.

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Mr. Bernier is highly confident that he can raise the money and backing for his cause. I’m not so sure. Although he has a following, he’s widely portrayed as a lightweight and a dilettante. His defection has been greeted with undisguised contempt by the party faithful. “If he works as hard as he has in the Conservative Party, we don’t have a lot to worry about,” sniped Michelle Rempel on Twitter. And this, from Bob Rae: “Maxime Bernier is not a loose cannon. He is a loose popgun.”

Yet it would be way too premature to count him out. There are two reasons why: the mathematics of vote-splitting, and the potentially explosive immigration issue.

As Eric Grenier, the CBC’s polling expert, points out, the issue is not how many seats Mr. Bernier could win. It’s how many seats he can keep the Conservatives from winning. If the Conservatives were to lose just two percentage points of voter support to a hypothetical Bernier party, he calculates, the odds of a Liberal majority would increase from 48 per cent to 65 per cent if an election were held today. Mr. Grenier writes, “Bernier doesn’t need to be more than a bit player to have a big impact on the next election.” To wreck the Conservatives’ chances, he doesn’t even need to win a single seat.

An Abacus poll taken a few days ago tells the same story in more detail. The poll is speculative, of course, but the results are suggestive. It found a surprising amount of support for a hypothetical “Bernier party,” featuring a promise to reduce immigration, end supply management, and avoid retaliatory tariffs against the United States. Thirteen per cent of those polled said they’d vote for such a party – and the support was nationwide.

For Mr. Bernier, the most fertile issue is likely to be not supply management but immigration. Canada has never had an anti-immigration party in modern times, but there’s nothing that inoculates us from anti-immigration sentiment, which may well be on the rise. In the past few years, opposition to immigration has been growing steadily, according to the Angus Reid Institute. For the first time, half (49 per cent) of those polled say that Canada’s current immigration target (310,000 people this year) is too high. Only 6 per cent say it’s too low. If this level of discontent is real – and I think it is – then our current polite debates over immigration levels, diversity, and the handling of the refugee situation are only likely to get more heated. And Mr. Bernier could make hay with that.

A populist spoiler? It’s not unknown. He could do a lot of damage – even if he’s just a popgun.

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