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When Pierre Poilievre was in Manitoba last week, he was keen to call Maxime Bernier a fraud.

The Conservatives hope that a June 19 by-election in the riding of Portage-Lisgar will rid them of Mr. Bernier and his People’s Party of Canada.

Mr. Bernier is from Quebec, but he is running in Portage-Lisgar, a sprawling riding west of Winnipeg where his party did relatively well in the 2021 election.

And though the PPC is running at 3-per-cent support nationally in the latest Nanos Research poll, Mr. Poilievre’s Conservatives are surprisingly obsessed with Mad Max. They figure if they can beat him badly, and the PPC gets a smaller share of the vote than the 22 per cent it won in 2021, it might be the beginning of the end for Mr. Bernier.

So in Winnipeg on Friday, Mr. Poilievre attacked Mr. Bernier with a variation of the attack that the PPC Leader usually levels at Tories: that he’s not a real Conservative. Specifically, by arguing that Mr. Bernier is just like Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

Mr. Poilievre said both Mr. Bernier and Mr. Trudeau supported Quebec separatism – which is odd, because Mr. Trudeau never did. But whatever. Mr. Poilievre had other stretched comparisons. He claimed Mr. Bernier supported “woke policies” in Parliament, though he didn’t explain what he meant.

Mainly, Mr. Poilievre was trying to find a rhetorical device to suggest to the people of Portage-Lisgar that supporting Mr. Bernier’s PPC only helps elect Mr. Trudeau’s Liberals.

Mr. Bernier went out the same day to counter that kind of message by arguing that he is in a two-horse race with the Tories in the riding where the Liberals won’t compete. And, of course, to call Mr. Poilievre and his Conservatives a bunch of frauds.

“If you send another fake Conservative to Ottawa, nothing changes at all,” the PPC Leader said at a press conference in Winkler, Man.

As a minister in Stephen Harper’s cabinet and runner-up to Andrew Scheer in the 2017 Conservative leadership race, Mr. Bernier was a dyed-in-the-wool libertarian with liberal social views. During the COVID-19 pandemic, his PPC caught on with anti-vaxxers and opponents of lockdowns. Now that the anger has faded, Mr. Bernier has appealed to social conservative causes.

On Friday, he promised to reopen the abortion “debate” and fight “evil” gender ideology. He calls climate-change action “hysteria” and opposes “mass immigration.”

But it’s worth noting that Mr. Bernier’s PPC didn’t win a seat in the 2021 election, when their national support in opinion poll was higher. The strategists around then-leader Erin O’Toole figured the competition on the Conservative Party’s right flank might have cost them four or five seats.

Yet Mr. Poilievre’s Conservatives sure do worry a lot about the little PPC. That’s why Mr. Poilievre travelled to Winkler on Friday, why the Conservative Leader blasted Mr. Bernier at a press conference and in an interview, and why Mr. Bernier seems to get under his skin. Mr. Poilievre’s Conservatives see the PPC as a strategic threat.

While Mr. Bernier competes for votes on the right, Mr. Poilievre gets boxed in on some key issues.

The Conservative Leader says he is pro-immigration, and he knows the next election could turn on the votes of first-generation and second-generation Canadians in Toronto suburbs. But Mr. Bernier attacks him for favouring mass migration, so the Tories dodge specifics about immigration levels.

On abortion, Mr. Poilievre has declared himself to be pro-choice. But many of his MPs and active supporters are not, and Mr. Bernier is out to rile them up.

The Conservatives hope that if they can beat Mr. Bernier badly in Portage-Lisgar, voters will take it as a sign that the PPC is not viable. Perhaps it will wither away.

But maybe not. Mr. Bernier runs a culture-war campaign that feeds on alienation and protest, and the once-uncompromising Conservative now tailors his issues to stoke the anger. The tiny PPC can still tap discontent to raise money – not as much as the Conservatives, but the $1.6-million raised in 2022 was roughly the same amount as the Bloc Québécois, which has 32 seats in the House of Commons.

That could be what allows Mr. Bernier to keep going, competing on the Tories’ right, even if he doesn’t meet any of the usual measures of electoral success. But right now, the Conservatives are dreaming of dealing him a mortal blow in Manitoba.

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