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Opinion: Is something wrong with Canada’s right?

Canada’s leading provincial Conservatives have taken a big hit over the course of the pandemic.

Outside of the Atlantic region, no Conservative premier gets a passing grade for his management of the health crisis. These days, the government leaders of Alberta, Ontario and Manitoba sit at the bottom of the provincial list. A majority of their voters disapprove of their performance.

Because he fell from a greater height, Jason Kenney’s decline in popularity has been the most spectacular.

At this time last year, the Alberta premier was widely considered the most influential voice in Canada’s conservative movement. His endorsement of Erin O’Toole changed the dynamics of the federal leadership campaign.

This week, a Leger poll reported that only 29 per cent of Albertans feel Kenney has been up to the pandemic challenge.

In the province that has the least time for the current prime minister and his Liberal party, Justin Trudeau leads the premier on the satisfaction index by 11 points.

Where Kenney took a slide, Ontario Premier Doug Ford has ridden a roller coaster. Over the past few months, he, like Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister, has been on the way down.

It may be that this is just a difficult period for this conservative trifecta. As their provinces recover from the pandemic, so might the standing of their governments.

After all, if voters were unforgiving of a poor COVID-19 track record, Quebec’s François Legault, whose province posted the highest number of casualties, would not be in the provincial top tier this spring.

But what if the dismal scores of those leading conservative premiers were another symptom of a larger more systemic malaise within the Canadian right?

There have been times over the past few weeks when Ford and Pallister have very much looked like deer in the headlights. And Kenney has endured more caucus dissent than any of his fellow premiers. That speaks in part to a political reality that is distinct from that of many other provinces.

Since the pandemic began, polls have shown public opinion to be on side with lockdowns and restrictive measures.

When politicians have gotten into trouble, it has usually been over the perception that they were not responding decisively enough to limit the spread of the pandemic.

But on the need for a restrictive approach to the pandemic, conservative supporters are definitely more conflicted than those of the other main parties.

While none of Canada’s leading conservative politicians could be described as a pandemic-denier, their bases include a significant faction that is more inclined to take its cues from the likes of Donald Trump and his followers than from its own leaders.

Trumpism may have failed to take hold in this country but it has connected with a solid constituency within the conservative movement. Polls have shown that almost half of those who self-identify as Conservative Party of Canada supporters would have cast a ballot for Trump last November.

Connect the dots between the Trumpian convictions of scores of conservative voters and the management of the pandemic and what one finds are premiers caught in the crossfire.

They have been taking hits from the many voters who sought more strenuous pandemic-related restrictions and from the part of their political bases that see lockdowns as a capitulation to fear-mongering liberal elites.

On the management of the pandemic, as on climate change or abortion and LGBTQ rights, the conservative movement is at war with itself.

And as the failing grades of the Alberta-Ontario-Manitoba trifecta in the polls demonstrates, the result is diminishing political returns, no matter what the approach ends up being taken.

O’Toole could be the first Conservative to lead his party in a post-pandemic election battle. What does this all mean for his prospects?

By now, the pandemic has damaged the conservative brand.

The perception that the party’s leading provincial figures fall short on competence cannot but reflect poorly on their federal cousins.

Chances are Ford will not be the only premier consigned to his basement when the federal Conservative hit the hustings.

The less time O’Toole spends rubbing shoulders with his unpopular provincial allies, the better for his party. But that comes with a silver lining of sorts.

In the past, federal opposition leaders have had a hard time fending off the notion that they would, as prime minister, take their orders from powerful premiers.

In his day, Tory leader Joe Clark could not escape from the shadows of Ontario’s Bill Davis and Alberta’s Peter Lougheed. In the last election, Andrew Scheer was dwarfed by both Ford and Kenney. He looked like their junior partner.

But with an eye to the next federal campaign, it has probably become clear to even the most myopic conservative partisan that the template for a successful federal Conservative party will not be found in the government backrooms of Queen’s Park, Winnipeg or Edmonton. That could give O’Toole more leeway to write his own ticket.

Chantal Hébert is a National Affairs writer.

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