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Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre speaks to reporters in the foyer of the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Sept. 19.Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

So there sat Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre and National Post columnist Rex Murphy in a cinder-block hallway that looked like one of the nation’s better prisons or lesser university dorms, a blue tinsel Christmas tree beside them.

You knew you were in for a treat when Mr. Murphy started out with this: “You’ve had in this particular year, the greatest – to some people surprising – acceleration both in your popular standing and in the sway of your politics, and – I’d like to say so – your performance in the House. What is it that came together that convinced enough people that you were more than a viable candidate for the next prime ministership?”

Mr. Murphy is a columnist, and no one participating in this interview – or, I hope, watching it – would have been under any delusions about it being sharp-elbowed accountability journalism, or it never would have happened. But still. Effectively asking, “List the ways in which you are excellent, and please be specific” is a heck of an opener.

Weirdly, for someone taking stock of a genuinely triumphant political year, Mr. Poilievre was low-energy and stiff. He barked out a few nasty coughs while they chatted, so it’s possible he was ill. Or perhaps he realized that even the friendliest interviews can go sideways.

This was not so much questions and answers as it was Mr. Murphy deploying extended harangues on things that had been bothering him for a very long time, then lilting his voice up on the last word as a cue to Mr. Poilievre to respond. Mr. Poilievre would then rummage through his catchphrases, stump-speech arguments and lines of thinking for something that approximately corresponded to the airing of grievances.

Once, Mr. Murphy launched into a long diatribe about school boards advancing “the woke agenda,” and how many parents have told him they fear what their kids are learning. He worked himself into such a froth that he concluded by bellowing, “It’s a SCANDAL,” before realizing that this was in no way a question. “What do you think of it?” he offered, as a wan afterthought.

Mr. Poilievre made a valiant attempt to steer the discussion back onto a paved road he recognized. He said schools should stick to teaching the three Rs and let parents raise their kids, and that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau should have minded his own business in the Saskatchewan battle over parents’ rights.

Mr. Murphy seized on this, talking about how it’s a sign of where we are that schools think they can keep information from parents about a student’s sexuality. “Where did they get the gall to say that they’re superior to the parents?!” he barked, a full octave above his normal voice.

“Not from me,” Mr. Poilievre said. He offered a desperate-bland smile that suggested he was trying to be polite while backing out of the room.

Within the blue tent, Mr. Poilievre’s time as leader has been marked by a series of surgically selective statements and actions designed to placate the outer fringe of the party – which offed the past two leaders – without alienating the much bigger middle.

So far, he’s pulled it off, but this shimmy is going to get harder as the music speeds up. Mr. Poilievre’s chat with Mr. Murphy was mesmerizing – and very funny – because it was a performance-art version of the problem Mr. Poilievre now faces, or will soon: How much can you smile and nod along with the family member hollering at the head of the table, without everyone else at the holiday dinner turning on you?

If ever there was an interview to step delicately over and ignore, this was it. The Liberals instead called a news conference to respond to what Kingston MP Mark Gerretsen called “a very serious issue.” And that issue was … uh, well?

“Mr. Poilievre has had an opportunity now with at least three different news organizations – friendly news organizations, I would add – to lay out his plan,” Mr. Gerretsen said, with furrowed-brow concern and urgency. “And we have yet to see anything substantive.”

About a minute and a half in, before the journalists even got to their excellent “What on earth are you talking about?” questions, you could see the light leave Mr. Gerretsen’s eyes. It was like Wile E. Coyote in a navy suit, racing out beyond the edge of a cliff, then looking down and realizing what he’d done to himself.

Gatineau, Que., MP Steven MacKinnon had been standing just off Mr. Gerretsen’s left shoulder, staring at the air a few feet in front of him, as though he already regretted what had not yet happened. Now he joined his colleague at the microphone, listing off policies Poilievre had not announced, and complaining that nobody had asked him questions about these non-things.

“We are not going to sit here and listen to Mr. Poilievre’s reductive talk without it being responded to, and make sure that Canadians – that we draw their attention to not only what he’s saying, but what he is not saying,” Mr. MacKinnon said.

Honestly, it was heartening. These were the dying hours of the fall session, when everyone’s brains were already dancing with visions of sugar plums and eggnog and festive cheeses. And still, there was some capacity for shame or whatever shadow crossed the faces of those MPs as they kept trying to make their case, long after it became clear they had heard the words coming out of their own mouths.

“What does it say, the fact that you’re holding a press conference to respond to his year-end interviews?” my Globe colleague Marieke Walsh asked, in a delightfully and deservedly impertinent tone. “I mean, how far back on your heels are you that you feel the need to do that?”

“What’s your issue here, that he did some friendly interviews?” Stephanie Taylor of The Canadian Press asked, in a similarly are-you-kidding-me voice. “I’m just confused as to why we’re here, and why we’re listening and doing this.”

It went on like this for a while. The reporters kept asking the Liberals several different ways if they’d lost their minds. The MPs kept offering, with decreasing enthusiasm and certainty that was both heartbreaking and hilarious, arguments that Mr. Poilievre and the Tories were not to be trusted.

When everyone eventually ran out of steam, the MPs turned and slunk away from the microphone and cameras.

“Merry Christmas!” Ms. Walsh yelled cheerfully at their retreating backs.

God bless us, every one.

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