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Conservative leader Pierre Poilievre speaks to reporters on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, on Feb. 8.Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

It was smart for Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre to quickly announce that he would honour the health-funding proposal Justin Trudeau put forward on Tuesday. It showed that he learned an important political lesson from former prime minister Stephen Harper.

But then Mr. Poilievre kept talking, and undid some of the favours he had done himself. The student apparently didn’t learn the whole lesson.

The point of promising to honour Mr. Trudeau’s deal was to blunt one of the Liberals’ perennial attacks on Tories, to take health care off the table for the next election campaign. That’s a move from Mr. Harper’s playbook.

Back in 2004, when then-Liberal prime minister Paul Martin struck a major health-funding deal with premiers after high-pressure talks in Ottawa, Mr. Harper, then the leader of the opposition, endorsed it.

It seemed strange. Mr. Martin was touting this deal as a great step forward, and his chief political opponent essentially approved it.

Mr. Harper had figured out that the agreement would ease the pressure on him, too. Mr. Harper’s endorsement meant Conservative health policy was the same as Liberal health policy. A Conservative government would not change anything. It shielded a traditional Tory weakness.

When Mr. Trudeau put forward his own beefed up funding plan for health care, Mr. Poilievre was similarly quick to say he would keep the Liberal deal if he were prime minister.

“Obviously, a future Conservative government led by me will keep in place these additional sums and honour the commitments made yesterday,” Mr. Poilievre told reporters outside a meeting of his party’s parliamentary caucus.

That’s a sound tactical manoeuvre. Liberal attacks on health care funding will be blunted. Job done.

Except Mr. Poilievre couldn’t help mixing that message with rhetorical blasts at Mr. Trudeau that accidentally raised a whole bunch of other questions about what Mr. Poilievre would do if he wins office.

He said the health system is in crisis – and certainly many Canadians would agree. He said it might be in the worst state it has ever been. And he said the sums offered by Mr. Trudeau to the provinces to alleviate that crisis are inadequate. He argued that Mr. Trudeau has spent so much money that he can’t afford to fund health care adequately.

Then when asked if a Conservative would provide more money for health care, he said this: “Unfortunately, there is no money.”

The point of saying that was to blame Mr. Trudeau for having “wasted all the money,” which is just an exaggerated criticism of the Liberals’ free-spending ways. But it’s one thing to blame the sitting Prime Minister for his past failures and another thing to say you can’t do anything about them for the future.

He told Canadians that health care funding is still going to be a big problem. Even a deadly problem. Justin Trudeau is to blame for not doing enough. And Mr. Poilievre is telling Canadians that if he is elected, he could not do more to alleviate the crisis. They’d have to cope.

That can’t be the message he wanted to convey.

Of course, most of that was rhetorical excess. The provinces, responsible for health care, set health budgets, and they can add their own spending.

And Canada is not actually out of money. Politicians can argue that there should be no more spending, and no more debt, but not that there is no way to spend. Governments have shown us they can find ways. Mr. Poilievre promises to cut spending, through vague assertions that he will cut waste, but if Mr. Trudeau’s health-funding plan really is inadequate for dealing with a crisis, he could propose to cut spending on lower priorities in order to provide more for health care. He said he doesn’t want to make promises he can’t keep.

His response to the health-funding proposal was not a political disaster. Mr. Poilievre still has a shield against Liberal attacks on health care.

It’s just that Mr. Poilievre didn’t land that message cleanly. He was so intent on gleefully attacking Mr. Trudeau for spending “all the money” that he ended up telling Canadians he wouldn’t find any money for their highest priority, even in a crisis.

Mr. Harper’s example taught Conservatives that by sacrificing a small, transitory political advantage for a day, they could use a health accord to disarm a perennial attack. Mr. Poilievre didn’t have the discipline to stick with the whole lesson.