Conservative leadership 2020: Who can take them to victory?

Photo Credit: Mackenzie Gerry

Photo Credit: Mackenzie Gerry

I want to make it clear out of the gate, I am not a Conservative supporter. However, from time to time I like to play ‘party strategist’ and give them some useful advice from my perspective on the left, all free of charge, I might add.

With that said, the last federal election was seen as a big swing and a miss for the Conservatives. Facing multiple scandals in the run up to the election, as well as historically low polling numbers, it seemed that Trudeau could have been another on the incredibly short list of one term Prime Ministers. The only thing that held the Conservatives back from sealing his fate was the man at the helm.

Nationally unknown and generally disliked by those who do know him, Andrew Scheer was a baffling choice for leader when he won out in the party’s 2017 leadership election. He seemed to generally be tolerated by the party base just enough to squeak out a late, razor thin victory after the field of 17 was finally dwindled down, one by one, to a run-off with now infamous libertarian-turned-far-right-sympathizing Maxime Bernier. Bernier would then go off to leave the Conservatives to form the People’s Party and lose his seat in the process (good riddance).

Few Conservatives that I talked to were all that happy about Scheer winning the leadership in the first place. He seemed to be everybody’s second or third choice, which would explain the soft support and little enthusiasm that he and the party generated in the election.

Given that the race was between Scheer and Bernier, it’s clear that the party’s high quality candidates knew better and sat the 2017 leadership race out. Jason Kenney, Brad Wall, Rona Ambrose, Peter MacKay, all were nowhere to be found when the time came to rebuild after 10 years in government under the highly disliked Stephen Harper, which doesn’t exactly come as a big surprise.

The tides have changed this time around though. After Scheer was forced to resign for taking party money to pay for his children’s private school tuition (and with a political landscape that is far more cynical and skeptical towards Trudeau and the Liberals) some of the big names are seemingly a bit more interested in the top job for the tories, what a coincidence.

I think it’s clear to any serious Conservative that the party needs to moderate their message and appearance this time around. While the social conservative lobby has a large presence within the party, Scheer’s inability to speak honestly on the issue of abortion, his decision not to march in a single pride parade with the other party leaders and the video of him on the floor of the House comparing gay couples to dogs all severely limited the Conservative’s momentum.

There are a number of more moderate candidates that have expressed interest in the job that the party could pick from, including Rona Ambrose and Peter MacKay, as well as a few others who ran back in 2017, though I’m not sure they will exactly move the dial like these two might.

MacKay was the leader of the Progressive Conservative’s when they merged with the Canadian Alliance to form the modern Conservative Party back in 2004. He then went on to play a big role in the Harper government. Ambrose was a long time MP and cabinet minister during the Harper years as well, though most notoriously she became interim leader after Harper’s resignation following the 2015 election, where she shined and grabbed national attention, unlike Scheer.

Despite their promise, they both have some unique challenges also. MacKay’s name might also lack the familiarity it had a few years ago, as he’s been out of politics for some time now. He also has a past of being quite close with Harper, someone whose image the Liberals used to paint Scheer in a negative light during the last campaign quite effectively.

Similarly, having been in cabinet during the Harper government, Ambrose might have difficulty shaking that image come election time to appeal to more moderate, non-Conservative voters. She’s also from Alberta, which, due to the current political climate, might spell bad news for the party in Quebec, a province they desperately need to break into if they want to win.

Despite the flaws, I do think, as most everybody does, that Ambrose is by far the best choice to lead the party if they hope to form government in the next election. She has a decade of cabinet experience, as well as experience as the leader, on top of the work she’s done since leaving politics in helping to negotiate the USMCA trade deal for Canada and encouraging women and girls to get involved in politics. Ambrose is an easy choice that would offer not just a fresh face to the Conservative Party, but a new, more moderate perspective, one that might help the party shake some of the negative conceptions associated with it, all of which were perpetuated by Scheer.

Conversely, I think MacKay comes off really petty and opportunistic in this whole leadership issue. He jumped the gun by openly criticizing Scheer to the media before he chose to resign. It made MacKay look like he was gunning for the job, despite abandoning the team in 2015 when he saw the writing on the wall. While at least he didn’t pull a Michael Ignatieff and jet set across the world for multiple decades, only to return home when he felt he could be crowned Canada’s philosopher king, I certainly get echoes of that sense of entitlement (and we know how that worked for Ignatieff).

In reality, do I think that the Conservatives will do the right strategic thing and elect a moderate leader? Only time will tell, it really depends on the motivation level of the wings of the party, how many average people they can sign up during the campaign, etc. While the social conservatives and right to life groups can organize volunteers around campaigns with militant efficiency, the recent loss by Scheer might just cause the moderate wing to fight back. Regardless, I’m sure I’ll be watching the whole thing unfold. So if anyone needs an overpaid strategist, send them my way.

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