Opinion: The thorn in Scheer’s side

Next month, Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer will celebrate the first anniversary of his successful bid to succeed Stephen Harper in the probable knowledge that some of his former rivals – as well as other ambitious Conservatives – are holding a bit of a deathwatch on his leadership.

As unpleasant as that may sound, he should not take it personally. The political lifespan of official opposition leaders in Canada being what it is, the temptation to not tool down until after a rookie leader has successfully undergone his first baptism of electoral fire is not exclusive to the Conservative party.

Former NDP leader Thomas Mulcair is only the latest official opposition leader to leave the scene defeated without having had a second shot at leading a federal party to an election victory.

Liberal leaders Stéphane Dion and Michael Ignatieff were both out of their jobs within weeks and days of their respective defeats at Harper’s hands.

The Canadian Alliance’s Stockwell Day tried but failed to make it to a rematch with Jean Chrétien.

John Turner managed to survive his 1984 defeat, only to spend the four-year stretch between his two campaigns against Brian Mulroney pulling Liberal knives out of his back.

If Scheer does not bring his party to power next year, or at least manage to reduce the Liberals to a minority government, he too will likely be living on borrowed time as leader. By all indications, Scheer’s own runner-up – Maxime Bernier – is not immune to the second-time-lucky syndrome.

A few weeks ago, Bernier caused a ruckus within caucus ranks when the supply management chapter of a book-in-the-making on his political vision for Canada surfaced in the media.

There was much to irritate his colleagues in that chapter, starting with Bernier’s assertion that Scheer owes his leadership victory to “fake” conservative members recruited by the pro-supply management lobby to defeat him.

That is not the kind of material that a loyal MP would want his publishers to make public just as the person who beat him to the leadership is lifting his head out of the water in voting intentions.

The Quebec caucus was particularly furious, as Bernier’s enduring battle against supply management stands to make the party a harder sell in Quebec in next year’s election.

Bernier has since put his book project on ice, but he will, by all indications, remain a thorn in Scheer’s side that will not be easily removed.

In many Conservative quarters, the Beauce MP is a sought-after fundraising magnet. He is a leading figure of the libertarian section of the conservative movement. Outside his home province, he is as least as well known as his leader.

In Quebec, Bernier is better known than Scheer. And his riding is one of the rare safe Conservative seats in the province.

In other circumstances, he would have been a prize catch for the right-leaning Coalition Avenir Québec as it completes its lineup for next fall’s provincial election.

But it would be toxic for the CAQ to recruit a frontline candidate who is opposed both to supply management and to government support for Bombardier.

If Bernier is to have a future in politics, it will continue to be in the federal arena.

In his chapter, Bernier wrote that many of supply management supporters who had signed up to support Scheer last year had since left the party. As it happens, that is at least in part on his own account.

From the perspective of the supply management lobby, and notwithstanding Scheer’s commitment to upholding the current system, the Liberals, the NDP or the Bloc Québécois all come across as safer choices than the Conservatives.

After all, no other party features a vocal supply management opponent on its front bench.

As opposed to the likes of Mulroney, Chrétien or Martin, who all spent years preparing a second successful leadership bid, Bernier cannot count on a devoted following within the Conservative caucus.

The opposite is closer to the truth.

But he is hardly the only ambitious Conservative keeping his leadership options open in case Scheer does not deliver a government next year.

Chantal Hébert is a national affairs writer.

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