With the return of the House of Commons from the holiday break coming next week and MPs ready to flood back into Ottawa, life around here will return to a more normal pace. Overlaid onto the normal events in Ottawa will be the Conservative Leadership Race, the scuttlebutt around it and what it will all mean for the future of this Parliament and of course, the next election.
We’ve been waiting for certain shoes to drop to see what the field might look like and who would stand a good chance at not only becoming the next leader, but maybe even someday the next Prime Minister. Given the field so far, the odds of becoming PM have been much longer, but one name floating around out there had the potential to be in a very different position: Jean Charest. Well this afternoon that shoe dropped and well, it was quite a drop indeed:
After the false start from La Presse, who had reported minutes before that Charest would get into the race, Charest himself burst that bubble in an interview with Patrice Roy of Radio-Canada. In the interview Charest lays out a few reasons for his decision to stay out, with a couple of them being very revelatory. The first reason was a more practical one for sure; according to Charest, the rules of the race “were not written for a candidate coming from the outside”. He pointed out that under those rules, it would be nearly impossible for a candidate like him to mount a proper campaign and be competitive in this race. That reason should be very sobering for Conservatives who were hoping that this leadership race would be a chance at renewal and growth for the future. If someone like Jean Charest, who’s as connected and able a politician that Canada has had for the past thirty or so years, if he can’t make it work, no one can. If the rules are written so that a well-known candidate couldn’t sign up the new members, bring in the new blood to the party, to make it work, that’s a bad sign not just for this race but for what comes out of this race for the Conservatives and that’s something they may come to regret down the road.
The second big reason that Charest laid out though is one that should be equally concerning to Conservatives looking to bring their party into the present, but not one that’s shocking to most observers. Charest bluntly pointed out that since he left the party, it had changed a lot and that when it came to certain key issues and principles of importance to him, his views had not. He went onto say that’s not to say that the Conservatives couldn’t change their views and that this leadership race could offer that opportunity, but it was said in such a way that you could tell he wasn’t very hopeful of that. When you read between the lines you can tell what those “issues” are. They’re the same social conservative views that sunk Andrew Scheer and will threaten to sink the next Conservative leader if don’t change the paradigm.
This is big news and really changes the course of this race, but not for the better of the Conservatives if you ask me. Charest was the only potential candidate who had the potential to change the Conservative paradigm and make it more palatable to progressive centrist voters. Charest was the only potential candidate with the heft to give Justin Trudeau a run for his money as well, and there’s no one from the current crop or other rumoured potential candidates who can bring that. What worse is that, as Charest pointed to, the rules of this race will make it near impossible for such a candidate to come into this race and be competitive by bringing in new members.
Simply put, whoever wins this race will still be heavily dependent on the current Conservative coalition of members and supporters, which has a very strong and good sized social conservative contingent. The only chance to break free of that group and their influence would be to bring in lots of new members to swamp their influence, which Charest probably could have done with better rules. I would argue it’s what Charest would have to do in order to win, or at least would be his best chance. By making the comments he made about the rules, it’s pretty clear that Charest believes that isn’t a viable path to victory.
In the end what I find so striking about this is that the Conservatives pushed Andrew Scheer overboard because there was a recognition that the party had a serious problem with the voting public when it came to LGBT rights and a woman’s right to choose. We saw all the commentary from conservative voices talking about how the Scheer approach (which was basically the Harper approach) wasn’t good enough for 2019 and that the party needed to evolve. And what we see so far are candidates who are basically the equivalent of doubling down on the exact same approach as Harper, with a few better-chosen words. Call me crazy if you like but that doesn’t seem it would be good enough or even close to it.
While Jean Charest brought a lot of potential baggage with him that could have caused a lot of problems down the road, he was still the best chance the Conservatives had to break out of the box they find themselves in. Instead they’ve decided to reinforce the walls of that box, making sure that they’re safe and sound in it. They may feel good about that state today, but something tells me that after the next election and another loss, they won’t have the same warm, fuzzy feelings towards that box they call home.