“I do not wish to discuss internal caucus issues,” Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer said on Thursday. Too late. He already was. Just not in a very forceful way.
The caucus issue in question is Maxime Bernier, the MP for Beauce, who took to Twitter this week to warn against “more diversity” in Canada, bestowing a political gift on the governing Liberals while forcing Mr. Scheer to walk through the political muck.
The Conservative Leader was able to be fairly clear about diversity (he’s for it) but not so clear on Mr. Bernier. He stammered out protests that Mr. Bernier isn’t a shadow minister, shrugging, shaking his head and saying there are disagreements within the party on various things.
It didn’t help his talking points that the Conservative Leader cannot announce he’s booting Mr. Bernier out of caucus because the Tories, to their credit, adopted steps to remove that power from the leader.
But that’s all the more reason Mr. Scheer needed stronger language, and body language, to make it clear Mr. Bernier is now persona non grata, relegated to an isolated corner of the party.
There are two reasons for that: One is that he can’t allow Mr. Bernier’s message to pass for the Conservative message; the other is that he needs to assert he’s really the leader.
The first should be obvious now. The Conservatives are trying to dispel the image that they don’t embrace diversity, after promising a barbaric cultural practices tip line in the 2015 campaign and Kellie Leitch’s dog-whistle leadership bid. A party that doesn’t embrace diversity will have a hard time winning the diverse suburban ridings up for grabs in next year’s election.
So Mr. Bernier’s statements were a slow pitch to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who ascribed them not to Mr. Bernier, but the Conservative Party. “The Conservative Party hasn’t changed much since the time of Stephen Harper,” he said.
The second problem is Mr. Scheer hasn’t yet stamped the mark of his leadership on the party and this episode makes it look weak.
Party leaders don’t have to always be alpha dogs. Mr. Scheer has done pretty well because he’s likeable and doesn’t have Mr. Harper’s controlling manner. But voters do want leaders to be assertive, to look like they can lead a team. Right now, they might question if Mr. Scheer has a firm grip.
He’s shown a tendency to hesitate. Last year, he waited through five days of pressure to dissociate his party from the Rebel website after one of its personalities expressed sympathy for white nationalist demonstrators in Charlottesville, Va. This week, he responded to Mr. Bernier’s diversity tweets by having his spokesman issue a bland statement, then a stronger one, and finally, saying it himself on TV.
It doesn’t quite seem to be Mr. Scheer’s Conservative Party yet. Mr. Harper is talking about the North American free-trade agreement. MPs quibbled over the party view of Syria’s White Helmets – “Guess the boys met without me?” MP Michelle Rempel tweeted. Mr. Bernier challenged the leader in the spring with a book excerpt that stated Mr. Scheer beat him for the leadership because of the support of “fake Conservatives” who just wanted to protect supply management.
Mr. Scheer has already stripped Mr. Bernier’s shadow cabinet post, two months ago. The leader – quite properly – doesn’t have the power to expel an MP from caucus. It would be risky to ask his caucus to do it, because if Mr. Bernier wins in a secret ballot, the leader would be further weakened.
Yet, Mr. Scheer still has to find a way to make it clear that Mr. Bernier has been isolated. He doesn’t have to do it like Donald Trump, who tweeted that former staffer Omarosa Manigault Newman is a dog.” He does, however, have to find a symbolic way of putting Mr. Bernier in the dog pound.
Mr. Scheer heads to a party convention next week, which would normally be a platform for the leader to boast that he’ll take his party into a winning election campaign next year. Instead, he has to spend time asserting it’s his party.