Place your bets, it’s a real race, now

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At the heart of the race for the leadership of the Conservative Party of Canada is the question of whether the Conservatives want to govern or if they want to sit in perennial Opposition.

By Sheila Copps
First published in The Hill Times on March 14, 2022.

At the heart of the race for the leadership of the Conservative Party of Canada is the question of whether the Conservatives want to govern or if they want to sit in perennial Opposition.

OTTAWA—It’s official. There really will be a race for the Conservative leadership.

For political watchers from all sides, that is a good thing.

We really will be able to witness the fight for the heart and soul of the Conservative Party.

Frontrunner Pierre Poilievre has already laid down the ground rules. He represents a “back to the future” approach for the party, where its membership will swim upstream against abortion, conversion therapy, carbon taxes, and gun registries.

On his side will be colleague and fellow right-winger Member of Parliament Leslyn Lewis, whose socially conservative bent managed to vault her to the top of the Conservative ballot box in Saskatchewan in the last party leadership race.

If Poilievre doesn’t make it on the first ballot, chances are a coalition with Lewis will take him over the top.

But it is also possible he may simply win the race on the first ballot.

Leadership contender Jean Charest obviously doesn’t think so. On Thursday, he made it official, leaving his decade-long political sabbatical to throw his hat into the ring for a party he once knew and loved.

The question is, does that party still exist? Will Charest’s political tentacles reach far enough beyond Quebec to sell the thousands of memberships required to be competitive in the race? Ironically, predecessor Erin O’Toole was elected by thousands of Tory voters, only to be dumped by a handful because of legislation that allows parliamentarians to toss leaders with the ease of a seasonal recess.

Charest obviously believes he will have the numbers and cachet to take over the party at the September convention vote.

And Poilievre has already signalled he intends to promote a scorched-earth policy to ensure that Charest never gets the brass ring.

Before Charest even announced, former prime minister Stephen Harper was making ominous noises about how he would use his influence to make sure that Charest stays down and out.

Poilievre was doing the dirty work that is usually done by other parties, pointing out how Charest’s ethical challenges and left of centre, Quebec-centric policies on the environment and social policy make him unfit to lead a party of the right.

On that account Poilievre is right. And more than right. His position on multiple issues is one that keeps the Conservatives out of government because, in appealing to religious zealots and anti-environmentalists, he manages to alienate the vast majority of the population.

Leader O’Toole got the message in the last election: either move to the centre or die. And in attempting to move his party to the centre, he died.

Charest will try to replicate the same move. And this time he has organizers and financial supporters who will send the message that the Tory grassroots needs to be fertilized with more green and socially progressive policies.

Zealots are more interested in righteousness than power. Because they answer to a higher power in heaven, election victory is not their first priority.

The Tory caucus is littered with bible school graduates who stand on principle and stay in the opposition.

But in the end, most politicians understand that little can be achieved in the opposition benches. They need to get to government to be able to accomplish any of the things that they believe in.

That will be Charest’s message. He knows how to win, and has proven electability on the federal and Quebec scene. His Quebecois roots are key for the party’s capacity to win, as without Quebec and Ontario, Poilievre has zero chance of becoming prime minister.

Charest will count on longstanding Ontario friends, including the likely involvement of provincial minister Carolyn Mulroney, daughter of Charest’s former national leader and prime minister, Brian Mulroney.

With a strong Ontario and Quebec team, Charest actually has a chance, but he may be receiving a poisoned chalice, as the next three months are guaranteed to bring bitter internal party divisions into the public domain.

Charest used to be a Progressive Conservative. The party split down the middle when he left, with many progressives moving over to the federal Liberals.

He may bring those progressives back. But in doing so, he will alienate the same Conservatives who now control the party apparatus.

Without the two coming together, Charest or Poilievre will end up leading a party so split that the Liberals could waltz back into another term.

The next three months will likely determine whether the Progressive Conservatives will be reunited or not.

A Conservative victory means perennial opposition.

Sheila Copps is a former Jean Chrétien-era cabinet minister and a former deputy prime minister. Follow her on Twitter at @Sheila_Copps.