Hébert: Conservatives show little regret after Scheer win

For all the talk about a split party and the possibility that all was not right with the vote count, there is little evidence to date that many Conservatives are having second thoughts about Andrew Scheer’s leadership victory.

Those of us who covered the 2006 Liberal leadership campaign and Stéphane Dion’s come-from-behind win know what buyer’s remorse looks like. In Dion’s case, the first symptoms of what would eventually become a widespread party malaise manifested themselves in the minutes after his victory was announced.

Those initial doubts were particularly acute inside Dion’s caucus and within the Liberal ranks of his home-province. His first question period duel with then-Prime minister Stephen Harper did little to dispel them. Dion was never a House of Commons natural, a fact compounded by his limited effectiveness in English.

As Thomas Mulcair has recently demonstrated, a strong performance in question period is not a harbinger of an election victory, but in opposition it does go a long way to unite a caucus behind a leader. Between a leadership victory and an actual election campaign, question period is the main venue where party members get to see a rookie leader in action.

On that score, Scheer, who spent the last Conservative mandate in the Speaker’s chair, has the benefit of knowing the Commons inside out.

The need to balance the expectations of caucus loyalists with the necessity of building bridges to other leadership camps is usually one of the first challenges of an incoming leader. Dion never had that problem for few of his colleagues, in particular in Quebec, had supported his bid. As a result, from Day 1, his back was more exposed than average to whatever knives would come his way.

If there was a Dion look-alike on the final Conservative ballot, it was not Scheer but rather his main rival Maxime Bernier.

The Beauce MP did better in Quebec than Dion had, but he polarized his home-province in much the same manner.

Since the leadership vote, La Presse has broken down the Quebec results. From a different angle, so did the CBC.

The numbers essentially show that both front-runners benefited from the party’s chronic weakness in the province.

Of Scheer’s 10 best scores, La Presse found that seven were registered in Quebec ridings. At 89.06 per cent, the new leader’s score in Richmond Arthabaska – the seat of MP Alain Rayes – ranked a close second to the result in his own Saskatchewan riding. A mere fraction of a percentage point separated the two.

At Saturday night’s annual press gallery dinner, Scheer joked about owing his victory to a lobby of Quebec dairy farmers, but as La Presse’s research illustrates, the contribution of that lobby to the result was real enough.

Scheer’s support came massively from rural Quebec. Some of his largest margins of victory were registered in the province’s dairy industry heartland, in ridings where opposition to Bernier’s plan to do away with the supply management system ran highest.

But Bernier’s Quebec score also rested on flimsy foundations.

The CBC reported that fewer than 100 votes had been cast on the first ballot in 43 of Quebec’s 78 ridings. Notwithstanding the modest size of their membership, those ridings were worth as many points as those that were home to thousands of Conservatives.

Bernier won 30 Quebec orphan ridings. In the greater Montreal area, a region that consistently gave the Conservatives the cold shoulder over the Harper decade and still does to this day according to the polls on voting intentions, he won all but one riding.

The dairy farmers who backed Scheer may not have as strong an incentive to support the Conservatives against pro-supply management Liberal, New Democrat and Bloc Québécois candidates in 2019. But Bernier’s strength in his home province was at least in part based on the party’s relative absence in urban Quebec. It is typically hard to build on a vacuum.

Like most Quebec Liberals in 2006, most 2017 Quebec Conservative MPs believed their re-election odds would be better with an out-of-province leader than with one of their own.

In between those two leadership campaigns, Stephen Harper and, to an even greater degree, Jack Layton demonstrated that a political outsider could be competitive in Quebec.

In time, Scheer may fail to live up to the high hopes of his party. But if that happens, it will not be because he brought a weaker Quebec hand to the table than that of his main leadership rival.

Chantal Hébert is a national affairs writer.

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