Hébert: Lebel’s departure sets up intriguing byelection

With the resignation on Monday of former Conservative minister Denis Lebel, all is in place for a mid-mandate testing of the federal waters in Quebec.

With three of the four opposition parties featuring new leaders, the byelection to be held in the riding of Lac-Saint-Jean – possibly before the end of the year – will be a must-watch.

But first a word on the departing Lebel: Prior to serving as deputy leader to Rona Ambrose over the interim period that led to Andrew Scheer’s election as leader, Lebel was Stephen Harper’s last Quebec lieutenant. His early departure from the federal scene had been expected. Opposition politics was not his cup of tea. Nor for that matter would playing second fiddle to the new leader’s lieutenant have been.

A man who does not make enemies easily, Lebel can take some of the credit for a larger and qualitatively stronger Quebec caucus than the one he initially joined in 2007. Few MPs on either side of the House can boast as cordial a relationship with Philippe Couillard’s government as Harper’s former Quebec point man.

It is an open secret that the premier would like to recruit Lebel to run under the provincial Liberal banner in next year’s Quebec election. But Lebel claims he is done with politics for the foreseeable future. That may change depending on how the wind is blowing in the lead-up to the provincial campaign.

And now on to the riding Lebel is about to relinquish and the unpredictable outcome of the upcoming byelection fight.

For his first electoral test in Quebec, incoming Conservative leader Andrew Scheer has his work cut out for him. On the plus side, the party has deeper roots in Lac-Saint-Jean than in most other Quebec ridings. Under Brian Mulroney, the Tories used to paint the region blue.

Lebel, himself, has served for an uninterrupted decade in the House of Commons.

But his election scores speak to the diminishing Quebec returns the Conservatives recorded over the Harper era. Lebel was first elected in a 2007 byelection with 60 per cent of the vote. By 2015, that share was down to 33 per cent.

These days, the Conservative party is running in fourth place provincewide.

Scheer, as the leader of the incumbent party, may have the most to lose in the byelection, but, given the riding’s history, the stakes are also high for the Bloc Québécois’ Martine Ouellet.

Lac-Saint-Jean is a francophone riding located in one of Quebec’s most nationalist regions. As a federal MP and a Quebec premier, Bloc founder Lucien Bouchard used to call the region home. So did his house leader and successor Michel Gauthier. The latter held what was then known as the Roberval riding for almost 15 years.

It was upon Gauthier’s political retirement that Lebel entered Parliament. Notwithstanding the Bloc’s fourth place finish, with 18 per cent of the vote in the last election, Lac-Saint-Jean is in the top tier of winnable ridings for the sovereigntist party.

The rookie BQ leader has been running the party from her seat in the National Assembly. If Ouellet takes a pass on running for a federal seat in a riding with such favourable political demographics, it will speak volumes about her confidence in her capacity to bring the Bloc back to a position of influence on Parliament Hill. The same is true if her party does not show well in the byelection.

Unless the prime minister uncharacteristically rushes to fill the vacancy, the Lac-Saint-Jean vote will likely come on the heels of the choice of Thomas Mulcair’s successor next fall. In 2015, the NDP finished second in the riding, five points behind the Conservatives.

The 16 Quebec New Democrats who did not get washed away when the Orange wave receded in 2015 will be looking at this byelection result for omens as to their 2019 survival odds under their third leader in as many general elections.

And what of the Liberals? Polls on Quebec voting intentions have the party anywhere from 20 to 25 points ahead of its opposition rivals provincewide. But the last time the federal Liberals held Lac-Saint-Jean, Justin Trudeau’s father was leader.

If the ruling Liberals had their pick of a Quebec byelection battleground next fall, Outremont, the seat currently held by outgoing NDP leader Thomas Mulcair, would be the riding where they would hope to be given the opportunity to score a mid-mandate hit.

Chantal Hébert is a national affairs writer.

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