Maxime Bernier’s plan was once to wait until 2020, after the next election, then move to replace Andrew Scheer as Conservative leader. But he just couldn’t wait.
Now, he has decided to form his own, “real conservative” party – and has done max damage.
He didn’t just quit the Conservative caucus to lick his wounds as an independent. He jabbed his fingers into the painfully sensitive areas of the Tory body politic.
He left Mr. Scheer lamely stating that the Quebec MP had decided to help Justin Trudeau, then yammering unconvincingly through the question that line raised – whether his own electoral chances have been damaged.
So don’t believe the loyal Conservatives who troop onto TV to opine that Mr. Scheer’s party is better off with the trouble-making Mr. Bernier gone. It’s true that Mr. Scheer doesn’t have to worry about disciplining the errant MP any more. But the damage done – and the potential for more: That’s a big deal.
Mr. Bernier’s plan to launch a new federal party before the next election could end up falling flat. But the threat will still strike fear into Mr. Scheer.
The Conservative caucus will close ranks. Mr. Bernier never had a lot of support among fellow MPs, and now he’s stirring up divisions a year before they run for re-election. Former prime minister Stephen Harper, the country’s most influential Conservative, posted a rare tweet calling for unity behind Mr. Scheer.
But there could still be a drip-drip of departures – a few riding presidents or party activists. Plenty of conservatives on Twitter took Mr. Bernier’s side Thursday, asserting that he’s a real conservative and Mr. Scheer is not. Mr. Bernier will start competing for donors. If he actually does mount a new party, it only needs to win a small proportion of votes to seriously hurt the Tories' chances.
But Mr. Bernier has already had an impact. He left levelling the charge that Mr. Scheer is not a real conservative – or that he doesn’t have the guts to act like one. And that has the potential to chip away at the rock-solid Conservative base.
Mr. Bernier took issues that are already divisive points within the party and poked at them. He argued that Mr. Scheer is afraid to stand up for free markets and do away with supply management. He said Mr. Scheer was “following the Trudeau Liberals” in fighting a trade war with Donald Trump rather than taking up his offer to eliminate all tariffs. He complained Mr. Scheer was too politically correct to address immigration and multiculturalism.
That’s a witch’s brew of crimes for a chunk of the Conservative base: betraying free markets, being a Trudeau-lite leader and being PC on immigrants.
But note how odd it is that Mr. Bernier cited those things now as the differences that pried him from his party.
The Conservatives have supported supply management for years, including when Mr. Bernier was in Mr. Harper’s cabinet. It’s naive to believe Mr. Trump is really willing to do away with all tariffs.
Then there’s that thing that sparked his latest confrontation with Mr. Scheer: Mr. Bernier’s sudden, vague Twitter storm against “ever more diversity” and Mr. Trudeau’s “extreme multiculturalism.”
Once, Mr. Bernier chided then-leadership rival Kellie Leitch for her dog-whistle talk of testing immigrants’ values, calling it “karaoke Donald Trump.” But his tone has changed.
It’s hard to say what “ever more diversity” is, of course, and there’s no sign he really knows, either. At his Thursday news conference, he couldn’t identify which of Mr. Trudeau’s policies amount to “extreme multiculturalism.” It seems likely that, like Ms. Leitch, he adopted this new stand to win a political base. His tweets were the smoke bombs that gave him cover to split with the party.
It’s clear that since he lost the Conservative leadership to Mr. Scheer by a hair in 2017 he was preparing for 2020, expecting Mr. Scheer to lose the 2019 election.
But Mr. Bernier is a man with a belief in his own exceptionalism. He likes to think he’s bold and has flair. He chafed in Mr. Scheer’s team. He didn’t want to wait.
He took a risk on building his own political base now. It’s unlikely to work out for him – but it’s definitely a blow to Mr. Scheer.