If Prime Minister Justin Trudeau calls or forces an election within the next few months, he is likely to form another government: first, because Canadians are keeping incumbents in place during this pandemic; and second, because that pandemic will likely dampen opposition to his ambitious new climate plan, which means the odds are against Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole being able to do a Diefenbaker.
What is “doing a Diefenbaker”? Glad you asked.
Since Confederation, no one has become leader of the Official Opposition and then gone on to swiftly win an election. Either they have had an opportunity to settle in as leader, allowing voters to take their measure, or they have been forced to fight an election unprepared, which they have always lost – with one exception.
Sixty-four years ago, on Dec. 14, 1956, John Diefenbaker became leader of the Progressive Conservative Party, more or less by accident. The Tories had languished in opposition for 21 years and seemed likely to remain there after the election that everyone knew was soon coming. When leader George Drew suddenly became ill and was forced to resign, the party scrambled to find a replacement, ultimately choosing Mr. Diefenbaker, an outsider who had run unsuccessfully twice before.
A pipeline scandal, a tired government and Mr. Diefenbaker’s populist appeal combined to lay the Grits low in an election held less than six months later, making the Prince Albert MP prime minister. From then on, as before, no opposition leader won the next election without being in the job for at least a year. Which makes Mr. O’Toole’s prospects less than encouraging if an election comes in the winter or spring.
Mr. O’Toole has only been in the job a few months, and faces a reasonably popular government in a year when voters are rewarding incumbents in elections. Provincial votes in Saskatchewan, British Columbia and New Brunswick all returned incumbent governments. People want their leaders to work together to contain and overcome the pandemic. There is no reason to think Mr. Trudeau would become the exception.
Caveat: Liberal support could quickly erode if vaccination rates in Canada fall behind those of the United States or Europe. But so far, so good.
The pandemic has also made it possible for the Liberals to take the biggest political risk in a generation: offering a credible plan to meet Canada’s carbon-reduction commitment. The Chrétien, Martin, Harper and first Trudeau governments all recoiled from that challenge, because of the financial costs and political risks.
But with the deficit approaching $400-billion, what are a few billion more to fight climate change? Besides, in this pandemic, people aren’t driving like they used to, so gasoline prices are not top of mind.
Equally important, in the fight for the loyalty of the all-important suburban Ontario voter, the Ford factor appears to have been neutered.
The Liberals exploited Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s unpopularity in the 2019 election, yoking him to former Conservative leader Andrew Scheer. Mr. Ford’s popularity then soared during the pandemic, making him a potential threat to Mr. Trudeau.
Although Mr. Ford strongly criticized the Liberal plan when it was released Friday, calling it a “green scam,” Queen’s Park and Parliament Hill have worked well together in fighting COVID-19, lessening the impact of his opposition. Mr. Ford may not be much of a factor either way in the next federal election.
Mr. O’Toole is a much stronger leader than was Mr. Scheer. He has put together a solid team who are working hard at offering a coherent conservative alternative to the Liberals on fiscal policy, the environment, global trade and relations with China.
Their emphasis on supporting middle-skilled workers challenged by the knowledge economy could resonate with suburban voters. And looking at the electoral map across Canada, it’s hard to see where the Liberals could make substantial gains. From the Bloc Québécois? That seems unlikely. In Greater Toronto? They already own most of it. In the Prairies? Hardly. A Liberal victory is likely in the next election; a majority government, not so much.
By limiting the Liberals to a minority and biding his time, Mr. O’Toole could become prime minister. But the odds of him actually winning in 2021 are long.
No one’s been able to do a Diefenbaker since Diefenbaker.
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