Stephen Harper and Brian Mulroney are at war again over the future of the Conservative Party.
While neither former prime minister has said so publicly, everyone knows Mr. Harper opposes the efforts of former Quebec premier Jean Charest to become Conservative leader, while Mr. Mulroney is a Charest supporter.
Mr. Harper speaks to a conservatism that supports lower taxes and balanced budgets, that places a lower priority on fighting climate change than on developing oil and gas. As leader, he paid careful attention to the needs of Western voters.
Mr. Mulroney’s supporters place a stronger emphasis on environmental issues and are less dogmatic on taxes and deficits. As leader, Mr. Mulroney paid careful attention to the needs of Quebec.
Mr. Harper and Mr. Mulroney have been battling each other, with the occasional armistice, since the 1980s: over the creation of the Reform Party, the 1993 election that practically destroyed the Progressive Conservatives and saw Reform storm into Parliament, the creation of the Canadian Alliance, and the merger of the Alliance with the PCs into the Conservative Party, which Mr. Harper engineered.
Mr. Mulroney worked in the background to help bring about that merger. But he and Mr. Harper became estranged and remain estranged to this day.
Mr. Harper, as prime minister, clashed with Mr. Charest as Quebec premier. Mr. Charest takes a pragmatic, centrist, flexible approach to politics that Mr. Harper considers Red Toryism, or Liberal Lite.
But many Canadian voters like leaders who take a pragmatic, centrist, flexible approach to politics. (Truth be told, on most days that is how Mr. Harper governed.) It is easy to imagine Mr. Charest doing well in the suburban ridings surrounding Toronto and Vancouver that invariably decide the outcome of elections.
Conservative leadership candidate Pierre Poilievre, in contrast, is combative, ideological and populist: He cheered on the truckers and their supporters who occupied downtown Ottawa. He is given to simplistic nostrums on such issues as inflation and taxation.
He is also highly intelligent and politically savvy. Red Tories may have no time for him, but red-meat Tories like him fine. And he grasps the social-media component of politicking in a way Mr. Charest clearly does not.
On Thursday, as he launched his campaign, Mr. Charest released a video of breathtaking ineptness – the drab backdrop, the poor framing, the stumbly delivery.
On the same day, Jenni Byrne, a former senior Harper aide and a key member of the Poilievre team, released a slick social-media ad portraying Mr. Charest as a tax-and-spend Liberal who cozies up to China. Nasty, brutish, short and effective.
Mr. Poilievre has the support of 40 MPs, former cabinet ministers John Baird and Tony Clement, and Mr. Harper.
A Leger poll released this week showed Mr. Poilievre enjoyed the support of 41 per cent of Conservative voters, while Mr. Charest had just 10-per-cent support. (It was an online survey of 1,591 adults conducted March 4-6, comparable margin of error of 2.5 per cent, 19 times out of 20.)
Haldimand-Norfolk MP Leslyn Lewis is also in the race and Brampton, Ont., Mayor Patrick Brown is expected to announce Sunday, but neither is considered a front-runner.
If it’s hard to imagine Mr. Charest winning over the Conservative base, it’s equally hard to imagine Mr. Poilievre, staunch supporter of truckers, doing well among visible minority suburban voters.
Mr. Charest must convince Conservative partisans that he is truly one of them. That explains his declaration that he opposes Bill 21, a Quebec law that bans the wearing of religious symbols by some public servants at work, which many Conservatives consider a form of religious discrimination.
Mr. Poilievre must convince Conservatives that he can win over centrist, risk-averse suburban voters in a general election. That explains his emphasis on fighting inflation, carbon taxes and high housing prices, all of which matter to car-commuting suburban voters, especially millennials and Gen-Zers.
Mr. Mulroney and Mr. Harper both found a way to square the circle of appealing to the Conservative base and also to the suburbs. Will either Mr. Charest or Mr. Poilievre?
Whoever can win the party cannot win the country. Whoever can win the country cannot win the party. Whoever can win the party …
For subscribers: Get exclusive political news and analysis by signing up for the Politics Briefing.