As this first full week of 2020 has unfolded, we’ve seen a lot going on all around the World. But at home, we’ve seen more and more names come out of the woodwork about who will run for the Conservative leadership. On Monday, it was the little known Bryan Brulotte. On Tuesday, it was Pierre Poilievre in the morning and then in the afternoon, it was Erin O’Toole. And the rumours circulate about the others that will get in.
With the exception of Brulotte, none of the names have shocked anyone. They’ve mostly been expected and while each has their own charms, none of them would be considered to be a big shift or shake up to the status quo. None of them would qualify as a game changer when it comes to the Conservative Party of Canada, nor the state of Canadian politics. But today one name that has been rumbled about became much more certain, and this one is the first real game changer of this whole race:
Jean Charest, former Progressive Conservative MP and leader in the 1990’s turned Quebec Liberal Premier into the 2000’s. Someone with deep political experience in this country, a governing record in Quebec that many politicians would kill for and a lot going for him. He’s far from perfect, as he carries a lot of his own political baggage from his days as Premier, including an entire commission of inquiry into corruption allegations during his time, the Charbonneau Commission, which lead to police investigations and convictions. That’s not something that’s insignificant and could be big down the road, but it’s baked into the considerations here.
The fact is that Jean Charest, warts and all, is the kind of potential leader who would be a complete game changer, not only of the Conservative brand but for the political landscape across the country. Let’s face it, he’s an old time PC; he’s socially progressive, being pro-choice and pro- same sex marriage, but he’s fiscally Conservative, which is something that many in Quebec who lived through his years as Premier wouldn’t argue against. Remember, it was in part thanks to that record and Charest’s conservative governing style that lead to the “Maple Spring” student protests in 2012.
And despite that history, he’s still seen as more of a moderate influence nation wide and would be capable of winning seats where the Conservatives need to in order to win government, namely in Quebec and the suburban GTA. And when you look at recent polling on this that has come out in the last few days, you can see a path. While a Leger poll of Conservatives only showed 4% support for Charest, the same poll showed that 62% of those same Conservatives said that the next leader needs to have political experience, 60% say the next leader needs to be Pro-Choice and 53% says the next leader needs to be in favour of Same-Sex Marriage. Charest fits that profile very, very well.
But as Geoff Norquay mentioned when I was on the Arlene Bynon Show with him on Monday, it could actually be harder for Charest to win the leadership than to do well in a general election. It is a seriously open question if Conservatives in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba who became reformers to escape the Mulroney Conservatives would back a former Mulroney Conservative from Quebec. In a “One Member, One Vote” race, that may matter less if Charest can sign up a bunch of people. Also, it will help Charest that, according to the National Post, none other than Nick Kouvalis is on board with the Charest campaign. Given his bonafides in helping get both Rob Ford and John Tory elected as Mayor of Toronto, that sends a strong message to current Conservatives about where he’s coming from.
If Charest managed to pull this off and win the leadership, he would turn the current political make up countrywide on its head. If he won and the Conservative coalition held together without fracturing into two pieces, Charest would be able to turn one of the Conservatives biggest weaknesses (Quebec), into a potential strength. That right there alone would put the Conservatives into minority government territory alone. And with a more moderate Charest as leader, the GTA could open up more and put Charest into a position to win a majority.
Also, as I also mentioned in that radio appearance on Monday, Charest is a very big figure that could have the potential to make Justin Trudeau look small in comparison. Even with two terms under his belt, Trudeau simply doesn’t have the political heft that Charest does. The fact is that the Liberals managed to win their minority this time not because of Trudeau, but in spite of him. He didn’t look great, but when compared to the other choices out there, he looked better. Take that same dynamic and swap out Andrew Scheer for Jean Charest, and Trudeau no longer looks better by default. And when you add to the fact that NDP leader Jagmeet Singh is now the most popular leader in the country, in a general election with Charest, Trudeau could look like the third best choice and not even be the first choice of progressive voters to try to stop a Charest coronation. Of course, that’s all looking far down the road and projecting a big, but let’s face facts; with neither Pierre Poilievre nor Erin O’Toole can you legitimately picture that scenario.
In the end, a Charest candidacy in this leadership race is the first potential game changer in the whole thing, and maybe the only one to come. His is the kind of big name the Conservatives would have hoped to draw out, but it will be a case study of where the Conservatives are at to see if he is embrace and more importantly, by whom. If the Conservatives are serious about looking like and being a more moderate party, Jean Charest is the best big name to potentially make that happen. But will they embrace that path, or will they reject him as a Liberal interloper? This will be interesting to see and will give us the best window into the soul of the Conservative Party of Canada in this moment.