The word from inside the Conservative Party is that Jean Charest is strongly inclined to run for the leadership. He is waiting to hear about the planned date for the convention. If that date provides sufficient time for his team to sell memberships, he will jump in.
A contest for the Conservative leadership featuring Mr. Charest and Carleton MP Pierre Poilievre, who has already declared, would be a contest between the establishment and populist wings of the party for its soul. Right now, the populists own it.
But if there are enough people in Canada who want to see a fiscally pragmatic, socially moderate Conservative Party led by someone with demonstrated ability, and who are willing to take out a party membership, Mr. Charest might have a chance.
Mr. Charest was a young minister in Brian Mulroney’s government who ended up being one of only two Progressive Conservative MPs to survive the 1993 election.
As party leader, he brought the federal Tories back to respectability in the 1997 election, before leaving Ottawa to become leader of the Quebec Liberal Party and then premier, serving for almost a decade. Since then he has served as a partner at a Quebec law firm.
A small group of Conservative MPs and other figures released a letter Tuesday, urging Mr. Charest to run. “No other Canadian has a track record as extensive as yours in both the private and public sectors,” the letter maintains. “Mr. Charest, Canada needs you!”
A Conservative Party led by Mr. Charest would place a heavy emphasis on combatting climate change – he was particularly proud of his environmental record as premier – while reducing spending, debt and taxes. He would be a formidable contender against Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau.
But Mr. Poilievre has strong support within the Conservative caucus. The forced departure of Erin O’Toole as party leader suggests the caucus has shifted to the right, and the base of the party along with it.
Former prime minister Stephen Harper is, I’m told, still angry at Mr. Charest for criticizing cuts to cultural subsidies during the 2008 election, which Mr. Harper believes cost him a majority government. Mr. Charest will find no help there.
To win, his team will need to sell a great many memberships in Quebec, and in urban Ontario and British Columbia, effectively swamping the party’s existing rural and Prairie base. Experience suggests this is more easily said than done.
Could the Conservatives win power with a populist leader? Over at the Hub, Ben Woodfinden has written an analysis of how he believes Mr. Poilievre could unite the fractious Conservative Party and maybe even win a general election by railing against urban elites and the political class on issues of affordability.
Mr. Woodfinden believes such a message has “the potential makings of a winning electoral coalition that could propel the Poilievre-led Conservatives to government.”
Perhaps. But it is also possible that populism could destroy the party. Look at what’s happening: Conservatives stood four-square behind truckers and their supporters who camped out in downtown Ottawa for three weeks, protesting against pandemic restrictions. These protests were not supported by most voters.
Backbench Conservative MPs are openly peddling conspiracy theories and hateful rhetoric. Oshawa MP Colin Carrie railed against the “subversive” World Economic Forum in the House, while St. Albert-Edmonton MP Michael Cooper has called Mr. Trudeau “the greatest threat to democracy of our lifetime.”
MPs have taken to making incredible assertions, denied by banks and the RCMP, that constituents had their bank accounts frozen for making small donations to the Ottawa protesters – or so says Chilliwack-Hope MP Mark Strahl – or for spending $20 on a pro-convoy T-shirt, according to Sarnia-Lambton MP Marilyn Gladu.
Such nonsense may play well in the fevered swamp of social media. It does not make sense to ordinary, middle-class suburban voters who decide elections.
Would such MPs, and the party members who support them, accept Mr. Charest as leader? Would Mr. Charest, as leader, be able to keep such a caucus united?
I have written that no one who could become leader of the Conservative Party could win the country, and no one who could win the country could become leader of the Conservative Party. Mr. Charest may be about to test the proposition.
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