As I wait for my tea to finish steeping on a rainy Tuesday morning, hours after the Liberals lost their majority and the popular vote but still took a large plurality of federal ridings, there’s a few questions I can’t answer yet. Some of them are just a matter of waiting for more detailed breakdowns of all of Monday night’s individual races, and some number crunching of meta results. But the biggest one is what happens to Andrew Scheer.
Or, to put it more bluntly, whether the Conservative leader won or lost.
For everyone else, it’s an easy question to answer. Trudeau lost his majority. The NDP lost roughly half their caucus. The Greens failed to make a major breakthrough, despite yet another campaign of breathless speculation that this was their moment. The People’s party fizzled into complete irrelevancy. The Bloc had themselves a great night.
But it’s harder to answer that question about the Conservatives. I suppose it comes down to whether you’re a glass half-full or half-empty sort of person.
Let’s be optimists for a minute: the Conservatives won the popular vote, added seats, and will form a strong opposition in a divided House. They did so in spite of several factors working against them. In the country’s most populous province, the Liberals had the luxury of campaigning aggressively against a deeply unpopular conservative premier. Despite regional challenges, particularly in the oil-producing parts of the country, the national economy overall is good. And then there is simply historical precedent: it’s unusual for Canadians to defeat a prime minister after only a single majority term.
If you’re a Conservative and your glass is half full, that’s what you woke up on Tuesday morning reflecting on. Monday was a good night for you.
The problem is, the glass half-empty types have a hell of a case to make, too.
The Liberals were a badly damaged party this time out. Hobbled by scandal, a string of broken promises had alienated their supporters on the left and among younger voters, two groups that propelled them to their majority win in 2015. The party was heavily, arguably overly, invested in the personal brand of Trudeau himself, and revelations about his past racist conduct had shredded that brand. If you’re a Conservative, and you can’t win this election, that’s a major problem. The incumbents went out of their way to make it easy for you, and you still couldn’t close the deal.
So what do you do?
There’s little doubt that Scheer will count himself among the optimists in the days to come. He will point to the various things that look good for the party, and say he’s earned the right to stay on. Some of the pessimists may begin to ask aloud, however, if a different leader would have done better.
The answer is, yeah, probably. Scheer is, to put it mildly, not the world’s most engaging politician. He genuinely seems to be a decent guy. I don’t say that dismissively, I sincerely mean that — and you can’t say the same about many of his peers in Parliament. But charisma matters in politics. Scheer is lacking in that department. Also, he was doubtlessly wounded by several mid-campaign revelations about his employment history and (it’s still weird to type these words) his surprise American citizenship. No campaign will be without bad days, but those were both unforced, self-inflicted wounds on the Conservative leader. Worse, they’re wounds that speak to his overall credibility and judgment. Those can linger.
- Andrew Coyne: The Liberals didn’t win the 2019 federal election, they just lost less than the Conservatives
- Read the full text of Andrew Scheer’s concession speech: Conservative leader puts Trudeau ‘on notice’
- Chris Selley: It’s not Scheer’s fault the Tories lost. Blame the dreck that passed for his platform
But the biggest mark against Scheer as a leader is probably his religious beliefs. I feel dirty even writing that, because I respect the rights of every Canadian to hold their own views on spiritual matters. But I’m also a pragmatist. The Liberals, whenever facing any headwinds, will always, always play the so-con hidden agenda card. It’s low, and often pathetic, but it works, and they aren’t going to stop. And it works best of all when the leader is indeed in fact a social conservative, and one who seemed weirdly unable or unwilling to answer simple questions about how his faith intersects with his professionalism. These were questions the leader and party must have known were coming. They had nothing to say.
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I wish we lived in a country where every citizen was permitted the respect and dignity of a private spiritual life. But that’s not the country we live in, especially if you’re a Conservative. It’s an automatic anchor wrapped around your neck. Perhaps if Scheer had been willing to confidently assert what his beliefs were, and also why he’d still avoid the contentious issues of abortion and gay marriage, Canadians might have been swayed by his sincerity. But his effort was late and barely half-hearted. It probably did more harm than good.
I don’t know what will happen now. The Liberal minority is probably stable enough that the Conservatives could safely change leaders if they chose, provided they move quickly. But the party did just well enough that it might not see the need.
How that shakes out in the coming weeks will be worth watching. The next election may well hinge on what happens here. And if history is any guide, it’s probably not that far off.