Rahim Mohamed: The Frontrunner's Gambit
Poilievre’s aggressive opening sequence sets the stage for a bruising Tory leadership race
For the better part of the past three years, I have been fortunate to call Lexington, Kentucky home. As far as I’m concerned, Lexington is the perfect medium-sized Southern city: a bluegrass-tinted nirvana of horses, bourbon, and college basketball.
Some readers will also recognize Lexington as the backdrop of Netflix’s The Queen’s Gambit: 2020’s surprise breakthrough coming-of-age chess mini-series (based on the 1983 novel of the same name, written by University of Kentucky graduate Walter Tevis). Binge-watching The Queen’s Gambit while quarantining alone during the 2020/21 Winter Holidays, I took an immense amount of pride in catching the series’ myriad local references. In fact, for a brief, regrettable period in early 2021, my entire personality was “living in the city where The Queen’s Gambit was set.”
So when Pierre Poilievre released a new Facebook header photo earlier this week, I couldn’t help but notice its resemblance to this promotional poster featuring Anya Taylor-Joy, the ethereal star of The Queen’s Gambit. (Sadly, young women who look like Ms. Taylor-Joy don’t actually frequent the local chess haunts here in Lexington. Trust me, I’ve checked).
Poilievre, a chess enthusiast himself and the early favourite to become the next leader of the Conservative Party of Canada, executed a fascinating opening sequence last week as the leadership race got underway in earnest.
Jenni Byrne, Poilievre’s sharp-elbowed chief surrogate, had her knives out for party elder statesman Jean Charest days before he formally entered the fray with this lackluster announcement video: sending out a barrage of tweets reminding Canadians of Charest’s recent employment history; the name of the party he led for a decade as premier of Quebec (hint: not the Conservative Party of Quebec) ; and his electoral track record as leader of the Progressive Conservative Party of Canada during a stretch of extraordinarily lean years in the mid-1990s.
Not to be outdone, Poilievre himself fired off this scathing press release on Monday, accusing former Ontario Progressive Conservative leader and incumbent mayor of Brampton Patrick Brown of lying about the Harper government’s Niqab ban (Byrne was the manager of the Conservative Party’s ill-fated 2015 campaign). Poilievre’s team released this slick general election style attack ad targeting Brown over the weekend.
Poilievre, who according to the most recent polling numbers enjoys a double-digit lead over his closest rival, is not campaigning like a traditional frontrunner. While he has shown glimpses of a soft, bookish side, he now seems content to lean into the “attack dog” persona that got him to the dance in the first place—especially with genuine opponents finally coming out of the woodwork.
To his credit, Poilievre is taking nothing for granted and overlooking no one. The front of the pack can be a dangerous place, especially in the early days of a months-long campaign, and complacency has been the downfall of many a frontrunner. In launching pre-emptive strikes against his two most dangerous rivals, Poilievre is following the sage advice of one Stone Cold Steve Austin: “Do unto others before they do unto you.”
However, the next Conservative leader will be decided by a capricious ranked-choice voting system and not, as Poilievre’s camp might wish, a US-style series of primary elections. Poilievre will probably need to garner a critical mass of second- and third-place votes to seal the deal. (First-ballot leaders ended up losing in each of the party’s two most recent leadership votes). He will likely be the second choice of a good number of Leslyn Lewis voters, but beyond this he will be fishing for votes in a shallow (and poisoned) pond.
By making such an aggressive opening move, Poilievre is making a play to win in a first-round voting knock-out. Failing this, how many Brown or Charest supporters will opt for him as a second or third pick? It’s a bold strategy.
The next six months will reveal whether Poilievre is playing four-dimensional chess or just a petty, vindictive game of checkers. At the very least, this promises to be the most binge-able leadership race in recent memory.
Rahim Mohamed is a Visiting Assistant Professor of International Studies at Centre College in Danville, Kentucky.
The Line is Canada’s last, best hope for irreverent commentary. We reject bullshit. We love lively writing. Please consider supporting us by subscribing. Follow us on Twitter @the_lineca. Fight with us on Facebook. Pitch us something: email@example.com