Leadership races are a test of many things within a party. They test the strength of their organization, the strength of the various bases within them and can test the patience of even more. But for some one of the biggest tests that a leadership race can bring is to test the very unity of the party itself. This isn’t true of all leadership campaigns, but some come down to some very basic tenants and conflicts that can’t help but put the unity of party into question.
For the Conservatives, this was the case in their last leadership campaign, the first after Stephen Harper left. That was the campaign to replace the first leader of that newly re-unified party and many wondered if the coalition that Harper had helped to cobble together could hold under a new leader, or if it would just splinter apart. At the end of the Summer of 2018, that unity was a bit more in doubt after campaign runner-up Maxime Bernier bolted to start his own party, one that held the potential to pull Conservative voters in a new direction. Today we know how that turned out and even though Bernier’s PPC is still alive, it’s hardly the threat to the Conservatives that some thought it could be.
Yet here we are again in 2020, with another Conservative leadership race and the question about the ability to hold the Harper party together remains a live one. And two stories from the past week show us the real threats that could make things different this time. The first came from the Hill Times today, with some interesting quotes from a Conservative MP:
Ahhh, it looks like Conservative MP Stephanie Kusie went there. She says that if Peter MacKay were to win, “it is a threat to the unity of the party.” Of course she is supporting MacKay’s main rival Erin O’Toole, so take those declarations with more than a few grains of salt. Also Kusie is known in the House for her rhetorical flourishes and penchant for hyperbolic language, so again add a few more grains of salt to those declarations. But regardless of how much salt to put aside for these statements, they still shouldn’t be put out of mind. These aren’t the words of a campaign simply trying to use another rhetorical tool to win a race, there is more under the surface here.
Let’s face it, MacKay is viewed as the relatively more social progressive figure in that party and he’s being viewed as a threat to the more hardcore right wing of the party, along with the social conservatives that hold a lot of sway. Add to that the idea that some of his opponents want to paint him as being of “the East”, therefore to be viewed with a suspicious eye, it adds layers of potential danger here if he were to win and unable to bring everyone on board.
Of course, that’s assuming that anyone could keep that coalition together and still be able to challenge for government, which is a seriously open question. There are many potential obstacles to keeping that voter block together, and it’s the second story that came out late last week, pointing to another ominous cloud on the horizon for the Blue Team going forward:
Now let me be clear when talking about this, I don’t see Wexit Canada being a threat in the next election, nor in the future. I don’t see them winning seats nor being a political force beyond anything that the PPC was in the last campaign. But this new of Jay Hill taking on the role of Interim Leader is nothing to sneeze at. Seeing Stephen Harper’s former Government House Leader talking about Canada as a failure is striking. Seeing a guy who used to get elected in his old Reform days saying “The West Wants In” to now say “The West Wants Out” is noteworthy to say the least.
As Hill made the media rounds over the week to talked about how seeing Justin Trudeau become Prime Minister again was the straw that broke his back, basically turning his argument into “if I don’t like who wins, I want out”. It’s an argument that doesn’t serve their cause well because there are structural issues with Canada that are legitimate and that need addressing, which is what a party that was truly about making their region better would be pushing for. Instead his argument seems to come back to how his party wasn’t in power and boo-hoo to the rest.
Ironically, that has been part of the tone of the Conservatives since the campaign too, essentially equating their policies with “the West” and the Liberals policies as from somewhere else. We saw the same thing when the Buffalo Declaration came out, which was heavy on the “boo the Liberals won” while being very light on dealing the real, legitimate structural issues. But putting that aside for the moment, Hill going to Wexit Canada, along with some of the sovereigntist noises made by some Conservative MPs every now and again, speaks to the potential danger here in this moment for the Conservative Party. If the “Easterner” from Nova Scotia Peter MacKay wins, do many of those social conservatives or western Conservatives throw in the towel on this party and join up with Wexit instead? Furthermore, if the “Westerner” from Bowmanville, Ontario Erin O’Toole wins, will that keep those people in the tent and if so, for how long?
In the end the threat to the Conservative Party here isn’t that Wexit Canada takes a lot of seats away from them, at least not in the short or medium term. Similar to the challenge that the PPC posed in 2019, the threat right now is that Wexit Canada will siphon away enough votes to see the Conservatives lose seats in the West where they shouldn’t drop them. If any MPs decide to jump ship from the post-Leadership campaign Conservatives to Hill’s new venture, then that challenge gets even worse and the problem gets even bigger. That was something that didn’t happen when Bernier left, but I think is more likely in this scenario because Wexit is more about a movement and idea than about one man. Where the PPC was all about Bernier, Wexit has more to it to motivate potential Conservative MPs to join that team.
If that were to actually happen, the consequences would be big for the Canadian political landscape. If the Conservative Party seriously splintered in its heartland, that would render them completely unelectable nationwide. That would also help the Liberals and NDP hold onto or gain new seats in the West, thanks to the division of votes. And ironically if you believe Ms. Kusie, it could be the election of the guy who helped to create the current Conservative Party with Stephen Harper that could tear that creation apart.
Now do I believe that will actually happen? I’m skeptical to say the least and I’m firmly in the camp of “I’ll believe it when I see it”. But that being said, I do feel safe in saying that the odds of this scenario playing out are better than they were when Max Bernier bolted. We’ve seen this similar story before, when a group of former Conservative MPs from Quebec, including Lucien Bouchard, created the Bloc Quebecois. Could we see a bit of history repeating here? We’re not there yet but the events of the past week surely to raise the possibilities here and truly do leave open questions about if the Big Blue Tent can continue to stand.