The new Conservative leader will take ownership of a party that is enjoying considerable success in fundraising and membership numbers as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s popular support slumps amid the summer student grants scandal.
But the task ahead for the new Tory leader is daunting given the tight timelines for a possible snap election in the fall.
Outgoing leader Andrew Scheer said Saturday he’s proud of what he has achieved as the top Tory even if he failed to unseat Trudeau in the last campaign.
He said he’s leaving the party in good shape for whoever follows — a larger team of opposition MPs after the Conservatives won the popular vote in the last federal election and a “strong foundation” of support in nearly every region of the country after breakthroughs in Atlantic Canada and B.C.
“The next leader has a tremendous opportunity to outline a vision, use their victory speech to set out the agenda for the party, and then build on that, catapult that to a pre-election cycle,” Scheer said in an interview.
“The next leader has to remake the case for conservative principles. There are many, many Canadians today who forget what happens when big, big governments intervene in the economy and their daily lives,” Scheer said.
The Liberal government is set to deliver a speech from the throne on Sept. 23, the first opportunity for the opposition parties to topple Trudeau and force an election through a non-confidence vote.
That leaves little time for the new leader to unite party supporters, make casting changes to the team in the opposition leader’s office (OLO), draft a policy playbook that can be deployed on the campaign trail and familiarize themselves to swing voters who haven’t been following the Tory leadership contest.
The new leader also needs to recruit candidates to run in all 338 ridings.
Watch | How the Conservatives handled 150,000 mail-in ballots:
While the Conservatives have always been fundraising heavyweights — a Conservative source said they have enough cash on hand to run a fully funded election campaign as soon as the new leader takes over — the pandemic adds new challenges as social distancing measures make in-person campaigning all but impossible.
The “mashed potato circuit,” a term former U.S. president Ronald Reagan coined to describe the dinners and events that politicians attend to build support during an election, is largely dormant.
Before the pandemic hit, all of the leadership candidates were calling for a fall vote. The leadership hopefuls have since become less definitive with Erin O’Toole recently promising to bring down the “corrupt” Liberal government at the “right time.”
Lori Turnbull is an associate professor in political science and the director of the school of public administration at Dalhousie University.
She said, while tempting, it may be in the Conservative Party’s best interest to wait before triggering an election so the new leader can put his or her stamp on the party.
Turnbull said all of the leadership candidates should have similar priorities: tarnish the Liberal brand, avoid some of Scheer’s pitfalls — waffling on social issues like same-sex marriage and abortion — build on the party’s support in the Greater Toronto Area and develop a coherent conservative response to the challenges the country is facing as a result of COVID-19.
Watch | What Andrew Scheer says the next Tory leader must do:
After the throne speech, the opposition parties could reconstitute the parliamentary committees that were studying the WE Charity matter and unearth new details to strengthen the narrative that Trudeau is leading a government that is “rotting from the inside,” she said.
“If they do want to go on the WE Charity theme in the next election — there’s a lot more to be mined there,” she said. “They have to try their best to frame the election question going forward.”
She said while some people have undoubtedly soured on the Liberals in recent months because of the WE scandal, the Trudeau government has also built up a lot of good will among Canadians because of its handling of the pandemic.
“The Conservatives could go back to committee and keep probing the WE matter because, as it is, I don’t think the Conservatives have this in the bag by any means. If the Conservatives want to be the force behind the election — then they better win it. The pressure is on.”
Regardless of whether the Tories prompt an election, the new leader must also look to heal the wounds that have emerged after a sometimes bruising leadership race and unite the various factions of the big blue tent in common cause.
The two perceived frontrunners, former cabinet colleagues Peter MacKay and O’Toole, have traded pointed barbs throughout this race. O’Toole, who presents himself as a “true blue” Conservative, has accused the more socially progressive MacKay as a sort of “Liberal lite.”
In the French-language debate, O’Toole called MacKay a “liar” while MacKay said O’Toole is an “angry man.”
The party must avoid a splintering like what happened after the last leadership vote when second-place finisher Maxime Bernier defected to form the populist People’s Party, said Andrew Brander, a veteran Conservative campaigner who served as chief of staff to former deputy leader Lisa Raitt.
“No one likes family fights — these things can get messy. But I do ultimately think what brings us together is the willingness and the want to defeat Trudeau,” Brander said in an interview.
“There’s one thing that all Conservatives can agree on: the prime minister has got to go. I think people are so motivated — you’re seeing it in the metrics, the donations, the membership numbers — Conservatives understand we have to get it right this time.”
Brander said, no matter who is elected, the new leader should keep some level of focus on the WE scandal and the prime minister’s perceived ethical failings — it’s a strategy that has paid off in the past, notably with the sponsorship scandal.
The Official Opposition has been unrelenting in its criticism of the government’s handling of the WE affair, with frequent cries of “cover up” and “corruption” and a condemnation of a “chaotic” government from the likes of finance critic Pierre Poilievre and his ethics counterpart, Michael Barrett.
Canadians need to be constantly reminded of this scandal if we’re going to effectively chip away at the prime minister’s brand– Andrew Brander, Conservative strategist
“Canadians need to be constantly reminded of this scandal if we’re going to effectively chip away at the prime minister’s brand,” Brander said.
“Governments are rarely voted in, but they’re often voted out. I think the expiry date on this government is coming sooner rather than later,” he said.
While the WE charity has shaken the Liberal lead, the Tories haven’t seen much of a surge in national poll numbers overall.
According to the CBC’s Poll Tracker, the Conservative numbers have been effectively flat since the start of summer, even as the Liberals have seen a four-point decline.
In the Aug. 21 update to the poll aggregator, the Conservatives were still six percentage points behind the Liberals — a sign that the Liberal dip hasn’t resulted in a big boon for the Tories.
Turnbull said it will be a challenge for the new Conservative leader to peel away supporters because, despite some bad headlines, “the Liberals have built up a lot of trust because of COVID-19.”
“The next leader has to re-establish the party as an alternative governing party, a party that has relevance right across the country.”