The story of Maxime Bernier starting his own breakaway party has been too compelling to resist.
It seems of its moment, demanding Canadians consider whether right-wing populism could upend our political culture, as across much of the Western world. It plays to pundits who spent their formative years watching the Reform and Progressive Conservative parties battle, and have been on the lookout for rifts on the right since they merged. And in a partisan system that has recently prized discipline above almost all else, such a public display of dissent is great theatre whichever side of the political spectrum it’s on.
No doubt, the Quebec MP will get plenty more attention when he unveils his party’s name and other details, which he has indicated will happen before Parliament’s return next week.
What happens after may be a different story, if Mr. Bernier does not start displaying leadership qualities for which he has not been known to date. And so far, his latest turn in the spotlight has only underscored why he’s an unlikely candidate to build a party with lasting impact.
Start with his obvious difficulty or disinterest in enticing other politicians to work with him – decidedly unhelpful for someone aiming to start a party from scratch.
Claiming to be leading a political “movement,” Mr. Bernier would have done well to have another MP or two (even a former MP or two) alongside him as he announced his departure from Andrew Scheer’s Conservative caucus. But considering that he managed to get only seven Conservative MPs to back him when he was a front-runner for their party’s leadership, it didn’t come as a huge surprise that he was all alone announcing his departure.
He is more popular with the Conservative grassroots, but harnessing that support requires lots of roll-up-your-sleeves organizational effort.
Perhaps it’s churlish to point out Mr. Bernier immediately followed the launch of his new venture by going on vacation. But as a minister under Stephen Harper, he seemed someone who valued work-life balance more than many colleagues. And as a leadership candidate, he was known more as a grip-and-grinning front-person than someone with a deep interest in on-the-ground nitty-gritty. Absent most of the organizers who were hustling on his behalf during that campaign, Mr. Bernier now needs to develop that interest in a hurry.
Is he sufficiently charismatic that he might be able to attract lots of people alienated from the major parties, even absent robust organization? Well, he is telegenic. But he’s yet to prove all that compelling a communicator.
On the final night of the Conservative leadership race, Mr. Bernier's campaign opted not to have him deliver a convention speech, while every other candidate did so. In the run-up to his departure from that party’s ranks, and since, he has communicated almost entirely through tweets in which aides have a hand. When speaking in his own voice, he has more often come off as an exasperated advocate of wonkish libertarian policy positions than as someone deeply connected to most Canadians’ daily frustrations.
That raises the question of precisely what frustrations Mr. Bernier is even trying to tap into, which may point to yet another missing ingredient.
Successful breakaway parties have tended to be genuine reflections of existing or nascent movements: the Bloc Québécois and separatism, the Reform Party and Western alienation. As of a few weeks ago, Mr. Bernier’s fundamental disagreement with fellow Conservatives (and other parties) was over supply management of dairy – an entirely worthy subject of debate, but not what most Canadians spend their spare time stewing over.
Coinciding with his new party’s launch, he began using attacks on multiculturalism and the “cult of diversity” to distance himself. That may be more fertile ground, but just how committed he is to owning it – not for weeks, but for years – and how credibly he could do so is unclear. To date, his flirtation with that sort of nationalism has mostly been through the Twitter feed, and it was less than two years ago that he was accusing fellow leadership candidate Kellie Leitch of being a “karaoke version” of Donald Trump for treading on similar ground.
None of this means his former colleagues in Mr. Scheer’s caucus lack cause to fear him. Even stumblingly leading a party that only fields candidates in relatively few ridings, Mr. Bernier could still pull away enough votes to cost the Conservatives closely contested seats.
Presumably his ambitions are greater than that. But at this point, it’s hard to know. If he has a clear idea of what they are and how to act on them, he doesn’t have much time to waste, before most people recently paying attention to him move on.