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Peter MacKay introduced Andrew Scheer at a Tory campaign event in Nova Scotia on Oct. 17, 2019.

CARLOS OSORIO/Reuters

Former cabinet minister Peter MacKay says Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer had a “breakaway on an open net” in last week’s federal election but blew it because he failed to deal with questions about his socially conservative views.

Mr. MacKay, a potential replacement for the beleaguered Tory Leader, delivered some of the most searing public criticism of Mr. Scheer yet at a panel at the Wilson Center think tank in Washington on Wednesday.

“It was like having a breakaway on an open net,” Mr. MacKay said of the advantages the Conservatives had in the campaign, where they faced a Liberal government mired in a string of scandals.

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Mr. Scheer, however, fumbled his response to Liberal attacks on his opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage, Mr. MacKay said. Mr. Scheer spent weeks dodging questions about both issues, as well as on his refusal to march in Pride parades.

“That was thrust onto the agenda and hung around Andrew Scheer’s neck like a stinking albatross, and he wasn’t able to deftly deal with those issues when the opportunities arose,” Mr. MacKay said. “Among female voters in particular … it created a nervousness.”

Speaking with reporters afterward, Mr. MacKay would not answer directly when asked whether Mr. Scheer should stay on as party leader. “That’s a decision he has to make,” Mr. MacKay said.

Mr. MacKay’s comments come at a precarious time for Mr. Scheer, as he and his allies try to tamp down leadership questions after his failure to unseat Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. The Conservative Leader has been huddled with his inner circle this week, meeting with senior MPs as he maps out a strategy to hold onto his post.

One Conservative MP said the first caucus meeting after the election, scheduled for next week, will be tense. The MP, who was granted anonymity to speak about internal party matters, said they expect Mr. Scheer will make changes in the senior ranks of his staff. Conservative MP Mark Strahl, meanwhile, said the party is reviewing everything from staffing to policies after the loss.

A major figure in the party’s moderate faction, Mr. MacKay spent nearly a decade in former prime minister Stephen Harper’s cabinet before opting not to run in the 2015 election.

Some dismissed Mr. MacKay’s criticisms for coming from a politician who hadn’t run in the last two elections.

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“Big words for someone who didn’t even suit up and get on the ice,” tweeted Alberta Tory MP Chris Warkentin.

Even before the election, some Tory insiders had begun laying the groundwork for a leadership bid by Mr. MacKay. But the former Nova Scotia MP on Wednesday denied he was involved in such efforts.

“Absolutely not,” Mr. MacKay said. “This is a complete mythology that I am organizing or meeting with people or conducting anything that would undermine Andrew Scheer’s efforts. That is just absolute bunk and I don’t know where it’s coming from.”

In the panel, Mr. MacKay also criticized Mr. Scheer for not doing enough to sell his own ideas during the campaign. Mr. MacKay said the Tory Leader’s plan for a “national energy corridor” to move oil and gas across the country was a good proposal, but Mr. Scheer did not provide enough detail on it.

“Andrew Scheer presented what I think was a compelling idea, but didn’t fill in the blanks,” Mr. MacKay said.

Pollster Nik Nanos, speaking at the same event, pointed to another potential pitfall of Mr. Scheer’s campaign: The Tory Leader adopted a more negative persona in his criticisms of Mr. Trudeau leading up to the election than he’d shown previously.

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“The Andrew Scheer we saw in the election … was very unlike the Andrew Scheer that we’ve seen over the last 10 years as the former speaker of the House – nice guy, middle-of-the-road, family man," Mr. Nanos said. “And the Conservative campaign team made him into an attack machine, repeating negative attacks over and over again.”

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