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opinion

Jen Gerson is a contributing columnist for The Globe and Mail.

With Pierre Poilievre’s decisive victory in the federal Conservatives’ leadership race, the party now has a generational opportunity to radically reimagine what Conservative policies could be palatable to the Canadian public.

A strong mandate at his back, the man nicknamed Skippy need only to win the trust of a plurality of the electorate to implement reforms that would have been dismissed as untouchable by Stephen Harper.

And if this Conservative leadership race was a fight for the soul of the party, as former Progressive Conservative activist and senator Marjory LeBreton recently posited, well, the results are in. Reform is back, baby. Moderate conservatism is dead, and the harder-right, angrier, rougher edge will live the life everlasting. In the end, it wasn’t even close.

Self-described centrists in the party have certainly been angered by Mr. Poilievre’s online rhetoric and pro-crypto appeals, not to mention his sympathy for the anti-mandate freedom convoy. Some of them were so perturbed by the prospect of Mr. Poilievre’s ascension that they organized under the title of Centre Ice Conservatives, a dust cloud of respectability meant to form itself into the nucleus of a new party.

These centrists envision themselves as realists repulsed by ungenteel politics and disinclined to pursue policy proposals that would be declared extreme on the CBC. There would be sound logic to this argument, except that no one ever seems to be able to define what a centrist believes, nor what he or she actually wishes to accomplish.

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“If pushed to choose,” wrote Howard Anglin, former acting chief of staff to prime minister Stephen Harper and former principal secretary for Alberta Premier Jason Kenney, “would these folks opt for being conservative, or being in the centre – which, in politics, depends not on where you want to be but where other people are.”

This vision of centrism isn’t guided by principle or ideology; it is a creation of social positioning. Centrism isn’t a label adopted by people who believe in anything specific; rather, it is preferred by those who want others to believe something about them. And insecurity doesn’t tend to stir the passions.

On actual policy, as Mr. Anglin points out, there is no real daylight between the “centrists” and the Poilievre crowd. Rather, there is merely a difference of temperament, language and tone.

This division has been palpable in the Conservative Party for decades, and it played out most recently under the tenures of former leaders Andrew Scheer and Erin O’Toole. Both men failed to resolve the growing populism within their own ranks with the perceived realities of what the general electorate would accept from their party. Mr. Scheer, a genuine social conservative, tried to appear inauthentically centrist in order to win more progressive constituencies. Then there was Mr. O’Toole, a genuine centrist who tried to appear inauthentically conservative in order to win the leadership of his party.

Neither approach achieved an electoral breakthrough.

By winning the leadership handily, Mr. Poilievre has slayed this internal philosophical problem. He can only be exactly what he is, and his party must now be likewise.

If he can win an actual election – and this is still an untested prospect – he may choose to tackle any number of issues long declared taboo: the mandate of the CBC, the dysfunction of military procurement, and the imbalance in Senate and Supreme Court appointments, to say nothing of questions around law and order.

The centrists may yet prove to be Cassandras. Mr. Poilievre’s campaign may indeed foreshadow a far darker track: a destructive populism that plays on World Economic Forum conspiracy theories and undermines trust in long-standing institutions like the Bank of Canada in favour of a politics rooted in narcissism and grievance. I offer no predictions.

But if the will of Canada’s conservative movement actually lay with the centrists – if there were any genuine momentum for their brand of mushy pragmatism – we would have seen some hint of it by now. Instead, the most effective leadership candidates this faction could muster were Patrick Brown, a man facing such serious allegations of campaign wrongdoing he was disqualified from the race, and the walking political zombie of Jean Charest. Disco has been dead for a while.

The membership of their party has ruled. In the end, the existential struggle existed only on op-ed pages and political panels.

The battle for the Conservative soul has been won, and lost – by 68 per cent on the first ballot. Skippy’s the future.

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