Conservatives learning a new game

It’s apparent that all the world’s a Justin Trudeau stage and all the (other) men and women merely players. He’s essentially kicking the ball on the pitch by himself, with no goalkeepers to stop him.

It’s apparent that all the world’s a Justin Trudeau stage and all the (other) men and women merely players.

He’s essentially kicking the ball on the pitch by himself, with no goalkeepers to stop him.

It is key, then, to watch how those other players have taken to their roles in the first six months of this Liberal majority world.

For the opposition Conservatives, who meet in convention to take stock later this month, the news is surprisingly good.

In the post-Stephen Harper era, they have had to learn how to play on the Trudeau stage, knowing when to step back and let the prime minister suck all the oxygen out of the political tableau and when to effectively counterpunch. And, like all watching Trudeau in the first six months, they are grappling with how much they should emulate this style as they search for a leader.

So, you have interim Conservative Leader Rona Ambrose accepting a hug from Trudeau after she teared up while speaking about the devastation in Fort McMurray, and then being photographed sitting in Trudeau’s office with Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale in a show of unity to raise money to help alleviate the suffering in Alberta.

And there was former Harper minister Jason Kenney taking to social media to repudiate an anti-Trudeau meme as “apocryphal, Internet myth” that misrepresented the prime minister. “People should stop circulating it,” scolded Kenney.

Pigs aren’t flying and hell remains plenty hot, and Kenney and Ambrose remain true-blue Conservative partisans.

They have, however, learned to turn down the dial in the partisan hot house here.

They have taken their cue from Ambrose, who has provided that much-elusive “tone” as the interim leader. She can be tough, she can be pointed, but she shows the humanity the party needs.

She tears up and her voice cracks as she pays tribute to an Alberta colleague’s sudden death or the suffering from the wildfires in her home province. She’s real and she’s smart enough to play the non-partisan unity card with Trudeau, deft enough to smartly mock some of the prime minister’s social media tangents.

The party raised more money in the first quarter ($5.5 million) than any other party.

A Liberal drop-off after winning a campaign may have been expected, but a Conservative party chasing its own tail in the hinterland doesn’t raise money like that.

They may be a point or two down from their 2015 election result, but are largely holding their core during an extended Liberal honeymoon.

Conservatives are watching Trudeau turn recent conventional political wisdom on its head.

It was generally accepted during the Harper years that prime ministers should limit their exposure because familiarity will only lead to eventual contempt.

Trudeau is everywhere, fielding questions, addressing (usually young) audiences, doing one-arm push-ups, boxing or smiling broadly for a camera somewhere.

More often than not, that somewhere is not Ottawa.

Much has been made of Trudeau’s foreign travels, but he has punctured the Ottawa bubble and travels extensively within Canada, making the national capital that much smaller in the Canadian political equation.

It’s smart politics because he and his choreographers know the local theatre of towns and cities across the land is infinitely more valuable than the diminished theatre of daily question period.

Some Conservatives look despairingly at the party’s potential candidates and call for an “outsider” to take on Trudeau, but politics is a skill and Trudeau is a politician, not an outsider, who happens to be very good at politics.

The Conservative race will start when Kenney and Peter MacKay pronounce one way or another, but both look like they will run.

Neither has anything to gain in launching a year-long bid. Both will likely signal by the autumn or early winter, but neither feels any particular pressure to tip their hands today.

Kenney would still be the prohibitive front-runner to win the party leadership, but another white man from Alberta, a social conservative who was strongly linked to Harper is seen as easy prey for Trudeau.

That is now. Kenney’s backers say none of this would matter by 2019.

If Conservatives, however, start casting about for some, so-far unknown saviour from outside the party, a “non-politician,” then Trudeau has already beaten them.

He’s in their heads.

Donald Trump wouldn’t work here. Outsiders Pierre Karl Péladeau and Michael Ignatieff speak for themselves and smart Conservatives know it is folly to allow Trudeau’s style and popularity to push them into unmapped terrain.

Tim Harper is a national affairs writer syndicated by Torstar.

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