In the Mr. Men classic children’s books by Roger Hargreaves, the characters are all defined by a single attribute. Mr. Tickle has long, undulating – frankly, disturbing – arms for administering his greeting of choice. Little Miss Giggles conducts herself like a stoned hyena. Mr. Greedy is shaped like an eggplant, though he recovers from his disordered eating by the end of the book.
The point of these little cartoon people is that their entire existence – their appearance, their personalities, the stories in which they star – wraps around their one salient trait.
So what to make of it when Mr. Loud turns into Mr. Quiet?
Pierre Poilievre was a very young man when he first entered the House of Commons – so young that when he celebrated his 25th birthday during the campaign, his volunteers gave him grown-up clothes as a gift so he would look less like he’d wandered off a university campus.
But once elected, he didn’t end up marooned on the anonymous back benches, like most MPs when their training wheels are still on. Instead, Mr. Poilievre swiftly made a name for himself by gnawing enthusiastically on any opposition ankle he could find, making himself indispensable to Stephen Harper’s government as in-house attack dog.
In the years since, Mr. Poilievre has honed his political gifts without sanding off the edges. He’s clever and an obsessive study who loves a good prosecutorial brawl, and he’s never let nuance get in the way of a satisfying attack. He has a gift for one-liners, and if his style sometimes slides into carnival barker territory, his message never gets lost in the noise.
If he was drawn as a Mr. Men character, he would be a mouth on legs. It’s a role he now inhabits as much in his prolific and skillful use of social media as in real life.
After Bill Morneau’s book was released, Mr. Poilievre pointed out in Question Period that even his former finance minister called Mr. Trudeau’s government too spendy, and the Prime Minister shot back that he must be desperate to invoke “random Liberals” in his argument.
In response, Mr. Poilievre put out a video featuring a slow-mo montage of Mr. Trudeau and Mr. Morneau together in happier times, overlaid with the crooning ballad See You Again (“It’s been a long day without you, my friend/And I’ll tell you all about it when I see you again”). Random Liberal, indeed.
Perhaps more than any other politician in Canada at the moment, Mr. Poilievre is a student of the dunk. When he has a point, he makes very sure that it lands. Which means that when Mr. Fight You Behind The Bike Racks After School transforms himself into a wallflower, it’s a deliberate choice worth noticing.
As the convoy rolled into Ottawa, Mr. Poilievre grinned into a camera on a frigid overpass, welcoming the protesters as emancipating warriors for “Freedom, not fear.” As uglier elements surfaced and the protest crippled Ottawa and various border crossings, Mr. Poilievre was grilled repeatedly on whether he might like to retract his support.
He decided essentially to go to ground on the issue, retreating to a brittle repetition of the argument that he supports people demonstrating for their freedoms, but condemns anyone behaving badly. As a practical position on what stretched into a weeks-long illegal protest, that’s like saying you support the trees, but not the forest in which they stand.
Once the convoy blew town, taking Erin O’Toole’s time as Conservative leader with it, Mr. Poilievre instantly became the front-runner to replace him. Mr. Chatty also suddenly became Mr. Very Very Shy. He avoided national media and declined to participate in a third debate planned by the party. After he won the leadership in resounding fashion, he stayed bashful, not holding any press conferences or taking questions from reporters for six weeks, in defiance of expected procedure for a party leader.
Most recently, Mr. Poilievre has been demure about his MPs’ three-hour lunch with Christine Anderson, the far-right German politician elected to the European Parliament. The Conservative Party issued a statement on behalf of Leslyn Lewis, Colin Carrie and Dean Allison, saying they were unaware of Ms. Anderson’s views, which include anti-immigrant and Islamophobic opinions, along with enthusiastic support for the convoy.
Mr. Poilievre’s spokesperson then issued a statement from him saying Ms. Anderson’s “racist, hateful views are not welcome” in Canada. But the party leader chose to release that strongly worded denunciation solely through journalists rather than posting it on any of his busy social-media accounts.
He’s had plenty to say lately on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook about the high cost of groceries and housing, violent crime, the government’s walk-back of its firearms legislation and Chinese interference in Canadian elections, but crickets on the European politician or his own rogue MPs.
This selective communication allows Mr. Poilievre to defang the story in the mainstream media with his strident condemnation of Ms. Anderson, while passively obscuring it from his followers who worship her as a convoy hero, and who are unlikely to consume any of the mainstream sources that ran his denunciation.
When you build your career and your public self as Mr. Mouth, everyone learns that you’re very good at it when you kick into that gear. The problem is, everyone will also see when you conveniently turn into Mr. Nothing to See Here.
And eventually, they’ll notice that you only show up to a fight when you’re the one who started it.