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Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer, seen here in Ottawa on Nov. 6, 2019, will face a formal review of his leadership at the party's convention in April.

Justin Tang/The Canadian Press

Conservative MPs didn’t cast out Leader Andrew Scheer, but he is still condemned to five months of painful struggle.

The Conservative caucus didn’t revolt on Wednesday to boot Mr. Scheer from the party’s leadership.

These are Conservatives, after all, many of whom think of themselves as inheritors of the Reform Party’s grassroots traditions that leadership votes are up to party members. When MPs voted on caucus rules, they didn’t even give themselves the authority to remove the leader, let alone actually boot him. It would have been a big, shocking step to expel a leader two weeks after an election.

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So Mr. Scheer can stay for another five months, at least, until party members vote in a formal review of his leadership at the Conservative convention in April.

But the rumblings of disaffection already seem like a boulder starting to roll downhill. Pushing it back up will keep getting harder. If Mr. Scheer can’t do it soon, he is in for months of painful struggle.

There were some stalwart defenders of Mr. Scheer’s leadership among the MPs and senators who walked into Wednesday’s caucus meeting, but mostly, they were the leader’s people and his parliamentary officers, such as Mark Strahl, the party Whip, or Candice Bergen, the House Leader, or Alberta MP Chris Warkentin, one of Mr. Scheer’s caucus confidantes.

Many MPs have taken a position that amounts to “We’ll see.”

Calgary-Signal Hill MP Ron Liepert said it is good that Mr. Scheer is planning to go on a “listening tour,” but it didn’t sound as if he expects the leader to hear positive feedback. He said that when he knocked on doors during the campaign, constituents expressed concern about Mr. Scheer, and they have continued to contact Mr. Liepert’s office to raise qualms about his leadership. That’s in Calgary, where Conservatives won every riding by huge margins.

The real problem is the dissatisfaction in Ontario and Quebec – not just Mr. Scheer didn’t do well in the 2019 election, but the feeling that if he stays, he won’t do better in the next one.

Kory Teneycke, a former aide to Stephen Harper, and Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s election-campaign manager, has argued that Mr. Scheer’s apparent personal discomfort with same-sex marriage and refusal to march in Pride parades may be a deal-breaker for voters. Some of Mr. Scheer’s Quebec MPs see the leader’s personal views on abortion as what damaged Conservatives in the province. A few party figures, such as Senator Jean-Guy Dagenais, have called for him to quit.

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Once that starts, it gets more difficult by the day for leaders to regain their grip. Try to name the opposition leaders who faced a drumbeat of criticism after an election from within their own party but turned things around to win the next election.

Some of Mr. Scheer’s allies have drawn comparisons to Mr. Harper, who led the party to a loss in 2004, but returned to win in 2006. But the post-campaign criticisms Mr. Harper faced in 2004 were never the same rumbling that the leader didn’t have what it takes to win. Back then, many Conservatives were surprised they came so close to winning and felt they were getting closer to power.

On Wednesday night, Mr. Scheer acknowledged disappointment, called for unity and announced former cabinet minister John Baird will conduct a review of the campaign. But those are tactics to gain time. The criticism of his leadership will get harder to stanch.

Mr. Scheer will be under pressure to show he can change, but there aren’t many simple steps to show he has fixed the problems.

There are already fairly direct suggestions that he should fire staff. Senator Pierre-Hugues Boisvenu said on Wednesday that Mr. Scheer has to ask his team why the Quebec campaign “missed the boat.”

Sacrificing staff may mollify some. But Mr. Scheer isn’t facing anger so much as disappointment. Some critics want to see him express a softening of his personal views on social issues – such as being willing to march in a Pride parade. But it would probably be seen as a purely tactical manoeuvre. Others want to see his plan to take the party forward, but it won’t be easy to persuade members it’s a winner. It is already acceptable for Conservatives to question whether they can ever win with Mr. Scheer.

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