Ken Boessenkool: Poilievre has what Harper last did — total control of the CPC caucus
It's not enough to win an election. But it's a necessary precondition to having a shot.
By: Ken Boessenkool
As the results that made Pierre Poilievre the leader of the Conservative Party of Canada rolled in, I got to reminiscing about Stephen Harper’s path to becoming prime minister.
Most folks think of Stephen Harper as the founding leader of the Conservative Party of Canada, a party that became an electoral and political force that eventually won him a strong, stable, national Conservative majority government. But he was leader of a different party in very different circumstances in the beginning.
In late 2001, Canadian conservatives were deeply divided. Literally. A gaggle of MPs deeply loyal to Preston Manning had fled their hero’s creation, the Canadian Alliance, to sit as a separate caucus and were making noises about joining with Joe Clark, then leader of the Progressive Conservatives. Stockwell Day, the embattled leader of the Canadian Alliance, had stepped down as leader of the Canadian Alliance but made it clear he intended to run again for the job he just left.
Stephen Harper, and those around him, saw his entry into this race as a rescue mission — the deep divisions between the Manning and Day factions threatened to undo the western-based small-c conservative party we all had spent a decade or more building. Our overriding fear was that the Reform/Alliance party would fold into the Progressive Conservatives. Amid this speculation, Harper announced his intention to step down from the very conservative National Citizens Coalition and eventually announced his intention to seek the leadership of the Canadian Alliance.
Joe Clark was the foe. Harper promised no truck or trade with the Progressive Conservatives as long as Joe Clark was the leader. Harper (despite his Toronto roots) was a true western conservative and a true western reformer who would prevent the party from falling into the hands of a “liberal” like Joe Clark.
Harper wasn’t without baggage, at least from a mainstream perspective. Some of his earlier remarks would come back to haunt him: Canada was at risk of becoming a “third-rate socialist country;” Alberta needed a “firewall” to protect it from the rest of the country. Harper seemed to think Preston Manning was insufficiently conservative. Harper was widely panned as “brilliant but boring.” And conservatives should ignore Quebec and win the rest, to turn the old Liberal adage about the west on its tête.
In the event, Harper won almost 70 per cent of the leadership votes and 55 per cent of the points on the first ballot. He swept the west and took enough of the rest. He was leader of one of three conservative caucuses in parliament.
But, and this is my point in recollecting this story, it was clear who controlled the party. Harper, warts and all, won a convincing first-ballot victory. The smart set said he could never win. But the party gave him the mandate to try, with room to manoeuvre.
And we all know what happened next. He united the United Alternative, and then united that with the Progressive Conservatives, all while chasing Joe Clark (and others) to the sidelines. The smart set continued to guffaw at his support for the Iraq War, his promise to bring gay marriage to a second vote in parliament and his “culture of defeat” and “can’t do attitude” descriptions of significant parts of the country.
He lost his first election, but the only one who seriously considered having him step down was Harper himself. His grip on the party was ironclad. He stayed on and the Conservative Party of Canada held its founding convention in Montreal, shedding itself of some Harper and Reform baggage and proving that it could hold a large, serious and well-organized convention (kicked chairs aside) in a city mostly hostile to it.
Harper was shifting from giving the party and caucus what it wanted to offering Canadians what they wanted. And he did so in ways that never left the party or caucus feeling betrayed. Over the course of the next three elections he translated his control over the party and the caucus into increasing control over the government of Canada.
The latter would never have happened without the former.
The Conservative party is nowhere near as divided today as it was when Harper won its first leadership in 2002, though there are some visible cracks appearing with the departure of prominent Quebec MP Alain Rayes and the emergence of an odd group of folks, some conservative, pushing for the party to move to the centre.
The party has come through a number of years of leaders with a weak grip on the party. Neither of the two leaders following Harper left were leading on the first ballot in their leadership races. O’Toole won on the third ballot; Scheer needed 13. Neither leader could move confidently forward without keeping a firm eye on their backs. Neither were given more than one chance at the brass ring, and both were taken out by some combination of caucus and external backstabbing.
Without control over the party and its caucus, neither leader had enough room to manoeuvre, and neither leader was given a second chance.
Poilievre, warts and all, with his immense and decisive victory, now has Harper-esque control over the party, and by extension, its caucus. The smart set is saying he can never win. But the party has given him the mandate to try, with room to manoeuvre.
The question is, what comes next?
Poilievre will need to shift from giving the party and the caucus what they want to offering Canadians what they want. And he will have to do that without leaving the party or caucus feeling betrayed.
That will be much more difficult for him than for Harper. During the Harper years Conservative party members, as my friend Dan Robertson likes to say, lived on different planets than Conservative party voters. Today they live in different solar systems.
I have no idea how Poilievre will make this shift, or whether he will be successful in doing so (though a relentless focus on economic issues seems key). What I do know is that he now has enough control over the party and the caucus to try — a necessary, if not entirely sufficient, condition for doing so.
And as someone who would like little better than seeing the backside of Justin Trudeau’s Liberals (another leader who has an ironclad grip on his own party), I wish him all the success as he tries to do so.
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