Federal Conservative unity is being tested

John Crosbie would have no doubt enjoyed how his funeral this week became a high-profile backdrop to the emerging Conservative leadership contest.

Many of the main players were on hand in St. John’s on Thursday to pay tribute to Crosbie: the now-declared candidate Peter MacKay made sure to be there, as well as probable contenders such as former Quebec premier Jean Charest and Conservative MP Erin O’Toole.

Crosbie also would have appreciated, perhaps more than most, how the politics of the 1980s is still reverberating through the Conservative party of 2020. This week has dredged up some echoes of the Conservative party past, raising some very pointed, current questions about what the party is all about today.

Back in the 1980s, political commentators were wondering whether Brian Mulroney’s Conservatives and Reform party conservatives could ever be patched together into one party again.

In these early days of the 2020s, with the leadership of one Conservative party up for grabs, the speculation is active once more.

So are the symbols of that old, 1980s-era disunity. While one former prime minister, Brian Mulroney, was eulogizing Crosbie this week with a funny, touching speech, another former PM, Stephen Harper, was suddenly popping up everywhere too — except at the funeral in St. John’s.

Harper has appeared multiple times in the news this week: lecturing about Iran at a conservative conference in India; quitting his role on a Conservative financing board. Maclean’s columnist Paul Wells reported that Harper was planning to get more active in the leadership contest, to ensure that Charest doesn’t take over the party.

Now that’s some serious 1980s nostalgia. Harper has been bristling about Mulroney-era conservatives since that decade and clearly, if Wells’s report is correct, that grudge isn’t over.

To be fair, many of those old Conservatives weren’t so crazy about Harper, either.

“He is cold. He doesn’t have human warmth. He’s not able to even work a room. He doesn’t want to meet people.”

Those words came from none other than John Crosbie, who also wouldn’t have been surprised to learn that Harper didn’t attend his funeral on Thursday.

Not only would Harper have had to mingle with the likes of Mulroney and Charest, but he also would have had to sit through remarks from Crosbie’s son, Ches, who was blocked by Harper from running as a Conservative in the 2015 election.

Ches Crosbie was reportedly turned away because he’d committed the sin of making fun of Harper onstage in a satirical play. John Crosbie was not at all amused by the summary justice from the then PM, telling a reporter that his son should run as an Independent.

“I feel like running myself and beating the piss out of them,” the elder Crosbie said.

In short, and to put it mildly, the graft between the Mulroney and Harper conservatives never really took hold in the Crosbie family. So what if the Crosbie family represents something larger in the culture of the modern Conservative party?

The current Conservative leadership race, as it’s now taking shape, is looking like another test of strength for that grafted-together unity.

Peter MacKay is the only one in the contest so far who could fairly claim to straddle both camps. His father served in Mulroney’s cabinet and MacKay led the old Progressive Conservative party to its merger with Harper’s Canadian Alliance, before serving as a senior member of Harper’s cabinet.

But whether he likes it or not, MacKay’s candidacy will be viewed by many conservatives as a bid for the old party, pre-Harper, to reassert itself.

If you’re a conservative who believes that the history of the party starts with Harper, MacKay is an uncomfortable reminder that another brand existed before 2003 or so.

The Conservative leadership race of 2020 will revolve a lot around issues of unity — between West and East, urban and rural Canada, newcomers to Canada and “old-stock” Canadians, as Harper once called them.

Add another possible fault line to that mix — the one that divides old-stock Conservatives from the Harper and post-Harper era. This week’s developments have been an apt illustration of how some of those divisions still exist.

Funerals are generally an occasion for old rivalries and differences to be put aside for a while. John Crosbie, who always enjoyed a good scrap, may well have smiled at how his funeral couldn’t help but remind conservatives of how hard it is to keep unity in that party.

Susan Delacourt is a columnist with Torstar Syndication Services.

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