Peter MacKay picked up the puck, skated confidently toward the goal and fired it into the net. Only to find it was his own net.
The odd thing is that the former Conservative cabinet minister never even needed to lace up his skates and get on the ice. He has been repeatedly raised as a potential replacement for current Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer, and he could have just left his name out there, staying silent while Mr. Scheer’s leadership twists and dangles.
Instead, Mr. MacKay chose to publicly criticize Mr. Scheer’s campaign for failing to oust a weakened Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in the Oct. 21 federal election. “It was like having a breakaway on an open net,” he told an audience in Washington this week.
Someone should have told Mr. MacKay that shadowy campaigns to oust a party leader are supposed to be run from, well, the shadows. Suddenly, he is having to deny that he is organizing for a potential leadership bid, all while looking very much like he’s been caught holding a dagger.
Mr. Scheer’s team must feel like they have finally been given a break.
They have somebody to shoot back at. Until now, there had been a rising drumbeat of dissatisfaction within the Conservative Party from people who thought Mr. Scheer ran a bad campaign this time and doesn’t have much hope of winning next time. Some of them were former MPs, senators or past party officials speaking publicly, but most nursed their doubts behind the scenes.
Now they can blame it on Mr. MacKay. Perhaps it will look to some Western veterans like the revenge of the old Progressive Conservative wing of the party, which Mr. MacKay led before the 2003 merger with the Canadian Alliance. Mr. Scheer’s loyalists can whisper about a MacKay cabal. They can also point to some of Mr. MacKay’s flaws: the mistakes he made in office, the weakness of his French compared with Mr. Scheer’s, his comments over the past 48 hours, and so on.
But Conservatives also have reason to guess that’s not leading anywhere good.
Mr. MacKay’s comments about missing an open net brought a Twitter riposte from Conservative MP Chris Warkentin, one of Mr. Scheer’s closest buddies: “Big words for someone who didn’t even suit up and get on the ice.”
Then former MP Alex Nuttall told Mr. Warkentin via Twitter to show more respect for a co-founder of the modern party. That fuelled another round of commentary.
It already seems like the disgruntlement with Mr. Scheer’s leadership is taking on a momentum of its own that seems to have little to do with who is waiting in the wings. Once that starts, it is very hard to stop. Only Mr. Scheer can stop it. And if he doesn’t do it soon, he is, at best, in for six months of agony before his leadership is reviewed in April.
The big question isn’t really whether he ran a successful campaign. There is no loud chorus seriously arguing it was a triumph. But still, the question for his party is whether he can run a successful campaign next time.
Mr. Scheer was defined in the public’s mind during his first campaign as leader, and in Quebec and Ontario, especially the 905 ring of suburbs around Toronto, voters weren’t impressed.
Some of it might be his socially conservative beliefs, but he could have done a better job of saying he was personally anti-abortion but a Conservative government would be pro-choice. Instead, he dodged and looked shifty. His inability to say anything about same-sex marriage without squirming was probably more damaging. Over all, he didn’t look like a straight-shooter. His campaign argued that Mr. Trudeau was “not as advertised” but he didn’t look forthright about his résumé or his dual Canada-U.S. citizenship.
Then he followed the election with signals he would not change: He quickly asserted he would never march in a Pride parade. Now, Mr. Scheer is in a spiral. MPs will demand he clean house, and fire staff. But what he really has to do is much harder: redefine himself, fast.
Mr. Scheer might be tempted to wish that Mr. MacKay will score on his own net again – to remind his party the alternatives to his leadership aren’t necessarily perfect. Even if he did, Mr. Scheer would still have to show he’s got game.
Our Morning Update and Evening Update newsletters are written by Globe editors, giving you a concise summary of the day’s most important headlines. Sign up today.