Thanks, but No Thanks

Column / Don Newman


What is wrong with the Conservative Party of Canada? With the Trudeau Liberals reduced to a minority government, with climate change, Indigenous and energy politics appearing hopelessly intertwined, and with foreign policy dilemmas with both the United States and particularly China, the prospects of a third Liberal election victory are—to put it mildly—not very bright.

Against that backdrop you would think the current race to lead the Conservative Party would be attracting the best and the brightest contenders. Because when the party crowns its new leader on June 27 replacing the hapless Andrew Scheer, that person should have at least a 50-50 chance of being the next prime minister. Perhaps by then, given winters like the one Justin Trudeau has been through, the odds could be even better.

Those odds should have brought big name, competent candidates lining up to announce they are running. But instead, the big names have bowed out. One after another, they have taken their names out of consideration. All have had their reasons, either stated publicly or not. But none would seem a barrier to running if a person really thought they could be the next PM.

Pierre Poilievre, the feisty Conservative finance critic from the last Parliament. Rona Ambrose, the Harper-era cabinet minister. She impressed many in the House during her time as interim leader after the party’s defeat in the 2015 election and before Scheer was elected leader in 2017. John Baird, the highly competent cabinet minister in successive Harper cabinets who also served in the Ontario provincial government. And Jean Charest, who as a young MP 30 years ago served in the Progressive Conservative cabinet of Brian Mulroney, then became the leader of the Quebec Liberal Party in 1998 and premier in 2003.

Some inched right up to the line before changing their minds. Poilievre had a launch announcement set before stepping back, saying he realized the toll it would take on his wife and baby daughter.

John Baird had been Poilievre’s campaign manager. But as the prospective field collapsed, he was urged to become the candidate himself, to become the horse instead of the jockey. Baird now has a lucrative private sector career in Toronto, and a private life he enjoys. In the end he wasn’t prepared to give either up.

Rona Ambrose became interim leader in 2015 after agreeing that she could not use that job to then try for the leadership in 2017. Three years later in 2020, her interest in becoming the permanent leader was somewhere between slim and non-existent. With a successful career and happy life with her husband, J.P. Veitch, returning to Ottawa from Calgary was never really in the cards.

The circumstances surrounding Jean Charest not running are in some ways the most bizarre of all. Also, the most challenging both for Conservatives and more broadly for Canadian politics in general.

After leaving public life following his defeat in Quebec in 2012, Charest embarked on a very successful and lucrative career as an international lawyer with a prominent Canadian law firm.

But he still had the political itch. And he planned to scratch it by running for the Conservative leadership. Partly as a courtesy and partly to take the political temperature, Charest called former Prime Minister Stephen Harper before Christmas to tell him of his plans. Not only was Harper not supportive, he said he would do everything he could to make sure that if Charest ran, he would not win.

Whatever his personal view of Charest, Harper did not want the Conservative Party moving from the right to the middle of the political spectrum. That key opposition, combined with a barrage of prohibitively negative news coverage, supplied a sense of what Charest and his family would be facing. 

Whether Charest retains the political skill he once had was not clear. But the Conservative Party lost the 2019 election because of its inability to win seats in Ontario, Quebec and Atlantic Canada. Of all the potential candidates, Charest seemed the most likely to correct that deficiency.

So now the race is between two former cabinet ministers from the Harper era: Peter MacKay and Erin O’Toole. Others have signaled they want to run, but aside from Ontario MP Marilyn Gladu they are all no-hopers from the fringes of the party unlikely to meet the fundraising and membership requirements to be on the ballot. 

MacKay is a former Foreign Affairs, Defence and Justice minister in the Harper government, while O’Toole was minister of Veterans Affairs. MacKay is the perceived front runner, but neither is lighting up the sky. Perhaps that will change as the vote draws near. But the absence of so many big names in the leadership race is not a good omen for the party.

And it leaves the question: What is wrong with the Conservative Party?  

Columnist Don Newman, Executive Vice President of Rubicon Strategies in Ottawa, is a lifetime member of the Parliamentary Press Galley.