Scheer has time on his side, a short time

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The party that Peter MacKay built is not the party that will be voting on the leadership review next spring. Some left politics altogether (including MacKay), and some switched parties, like Scott Brison, André Bachand, and Bill Casey.

By Sheila Copps
First published in The Hill Times on November 4, 2019.

OTTAWA—Andrew Scheer has time on his side. Short time that is.

The Conservative Party is scheduled to review his leadership in less than six months.

When Joe Clark was under attack for his leadership, he personally set the bar very high. The youngest prime minister ever elected promised to step down if at least two-thirds of the Progressive Conservative Party membership did not support him.

He got the support of 66.9 per cent, missing his goal by less than 1 per cent. Clark stepped aside anyway and reoffered his leadership in a campaign which saw Brian Mulroney beat him.

Many are drawing comparisons to that race, with Peter MacKay as the foil for Scheer that Mulroney played with Clark.

But that was then, and this is now. Progressives have largely fled the party and MacKay is stuck with trying to convince current Conservatives that the party needs to veer to the left.

If the public had a vote, that shift would be a no-brainer, but this is a ballot within a political party, which is quite a different beast.

The decade-long leadership of Stephen Harper, followed by social conservative Andrew Scheer, have solidified the party’s role as guardian of the right. Scheer’s refusal to support gay rights, by marching in a parade, is not just a personal religious choice. It is a reflection of the political direction that won him the party leadership and will secure his position in the review.

The Progressive Conservative party that Peter MacKay merged with Harper’s Canadian Alliance back in 2003 does not exist anymore.

Except for a few pockets in Eastern Quebec, and Atlantic Canada, many current Tories likely support Scheer’s view that homosexuality and abortion should not be legitimized in equality legislation.

Throughout the campaign, Liberals were bombarded by media criticism for tying Scheer to the anti-abortion movement in past word and deed.

Scheer beat Maxime Bernier in a cliff-hanger leadership race on the 13th ballot by promising anti-abortionists that their private members’ bills could be introduced under his watch. During the leadership, he was captured on video telling the RightNow anti-abortion organization that he would not prevent private members from introducing anti-abortion bills and revealing that he has always opposed abortion in any House of Commons vote.

After the election, RightNow co-founder Alissa Golob said in a media interview that the total number of pro-lifers in the House of Commons has increased from 53 to at least 68 seats. RightNow plans to stay in politics for the long game, with the aim of taking over Canada’s mainstream Conservative movement by stacking nomination meetings and presumably leadership review votes.

The current Conservative mechanism for leadership review favours takeovers because the decision on who gets to vote for or against the leader falls to a delegated convention. That means each riding elects up to 10 representatives to attend the Toronto meeting and cast their leadership review ballots.

With anti-Scheer forces led by Peter MacKay, there will be a party showdown between former progressives and current Conservatives. Last week, MacKay was back-pedalling on his criticism of Scheer’s campaign strategy. After saying that gay and abortion rights issues “hung around Andrew Scheer’s neck like a stinking albatross,” MacKay declared his support for the leader less than 24 hours later.

However, behind the scenes progressives like MacKay will be trying to convince delegates that the party needs to move away from right-wing social ideology if it has any hope of forming the next government. But he may be facing a wall of social ideologues who were not a factor when MacKay and Harper convinced their supporters to merge two parties into one Conservative Party 16 years ago.

The party that MacKay built is not the party that will be voting on the leadership review next spring. Some left politics altogether (including MacKay), and some switched parties, like Scott Brison, André Bachand, and Bill Casey.

There is another operative truism in politics. The longer you have been around a party, the less work you do.

The up-and-comers in Parliament owe their victories to Scheer and will work hard to support the leader.

Losers will be busy trying to reinvent themselves, and may not have the energy or the appetite to mount strong local battles to unseat Scheer. In the end, the short time-frame, minority challenges and delegated convention all point to a Scheer victory next April.

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