Scheer’s departure is good news for his party

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But it is not good news for the minority Liberal government.

By Sheila Copps
First published in The Hill Times on December 16, 2019.

OTTAWA—Even in resignation, Andrew Scheer was unable to muster kind words for any party other than that of the Conservatives.

His smile masked a bitterness that seemed to permeate his final goodbye to Parliament as leader.

He had fine prose for the people in his own party, and much support for the sacrifices made by his family. But he couldn’t even find one good thing to say about any other leader or party, except to put the prime minister on notice about how the Conservatives will keep holding the government to account.

Usually when people say their goodbyes to political leadership, they try to find something nice to say about everyone, even their sworn parliamentary enemies. But Scheer’s refusal to do so was equally as stubborn as his post-election fatal promise that he would never march in a Pride parade.

Scheer’s departure is good news for his party. It is not good news for the minority Liberal government.

Scheer’s brand was irreparably damaged by his own intransigent social conservatism.

By refusing to embrace a woman’s right to control her own body and by shunning Pride parades in celebration of gay equality, Scheer was a 19th century leader in a 21st century Parliament.

His grinning, father knows best, persona did not resonate with Canadian voters, and there was little chance he would be able to turn that around without a personality transplant.

Scheer’s muddled position on social issues and his weak campaign performance were a gift that kept on giving for the Liberals.

During the election, Scheer could not move the dial on the two-thirds of Canadians who simply could not vote for his socially conservative perspective.

From a refusal to move forward on climate change to the negative tone of his attacks on the prime minister, Scheer simply succeeded in pushing people away.

Even after the election, his embittered tone did not appeal to voters outside his party core.

At the end of the day, his departure opens the door to a clean sweep in the Conservatives, with a number of potential candidates for the leadership.

From Peter MacKay to Jason Kenney, and including Erin O’Toole and Rona Ambrose, there are a number of high-profile Conservatives who could replace Scheer.

And, although leadership campaigns can become internally divisive, the minority Parliament situation will temper the tone on the Tory campaign trail.

The Conservative Party wants to win the next election, so it will try to minimize any cleavages that might split the party apart.

The social conservatives who initially brought Scheer to power will also be out in full force, not wanting to lose ground to party members who are social liberals and fiscal conservatives.

The last race attracted 17 candidates, although four dropped out before the end. This time, the party will likely discourage such a broad range of participation.

The race will likely attract three or four high profile candidates, and their debates will focus on attacking the Liberals instead of each other. They understand that, during a minority situation, the best chance they have of winning the next election is to remain united. Candidates must differentiate themselves, one from another, but the tone of the campaign must remain positive and not divisive.

Given minority government, a leadership campaign needs to be relatively short in nature. There is a chance that an election could come at any time, and a leaderless party is not in a good starting position.

The party will probably move to replace Scheer before next fall. Meanwhile, the status of Scheer as a lame duck leader will help the Liberal minority manage its’ parliamentary agenda.

The Conservatives cannot go into an election without a leader, so it will be unlikely to defeat the government on any issue in the near term.

In the long term, the Tories will have a new leader and newness in politics is a huge asset. It happens to be the only profession where the more experience you get, the more people want to get rid of you.

Justin Trudeau will be facing his third election. His own personal brand carried the party in 2015 but by 2019, it was the Liberal Party that carried Trudeau to victory. Trudeau’s wounds from the SNC-Lavalin affair were deep, but even with the blackface revelations, Scheer could not get traction.

The new Tory leader won’t have that problem. She or he will be facing a two-term Liberal government.

Scheer’s symbolic walk in the snow last week has definitively reshaped Canada’s political landscape.

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