Scheer has quickly made a hash of Harper’s legacy

By the time Andrew Scheer hands over the Conservative party to a successor in late August, he will have been at the helm for a mere 39 months.

As it turns out, that will have been more than long enough to squander the key pieces of Stephen Harper’s legacy.

That starts with the status of the Conservative party as a national force.

Over his tenure, Harper turned what was essentially a Western Canada party into a pan-Canadian coalition.

Under Scheer, the party has retreated back to its Prairie stronghold. That retreat was the main feature of the party’s election performance last fall. The movement has accelerated over the course of the pandemic.

Based on the latest Abacus sounding, the Conservatives currently enjoy a 31-point lead on the competition in Alberta and Saskatchewan, but lag 15 points behind the Liberals in the rest of the country.

Another poll, done by Leger over the same period, reported a similar trend.

In Ontario, the Liberals have built a double-digit lead on the Conservatives.

Scheer is clearly not benefiting from the widespread public approval that is attending Premier Doug Ford’s performance over the COVID-19 crisis.

It is ironic to think that, as recently as last fall, Scheer spent his campaign avoiding his Ontario ally for fear that Ford would act as a drag on his fortunes in the province. Now the shoe is on the other foot.

Indeed, Ford may be discovering what past Tory premiers such as Bill Davis and Mike Harris found out over their own tenures, that the Ontario Tories tend to do well when the Liberals are in power federally.

Over Harper’s tenure, the federal party stretched its wings in suburban Canada. A strong presence in the suburbs of the country’s big cities has become a precondition to winning federal power. So has a solid connection to the country’s ethnically diverse communities.

There is little more than a trace left of those crucial inroads.

Among respondents born in Canada, Abacus found the Liberals at 35 per cent and the Conservatives at 32 per cent in a competitive battle for support.

But the picture was dramatically different when it came to newer Canadians. Voters not born in the country favoured the Liberals over the Conservatives by a proportion of two to one.

Under Harper, the party did not do as well in Quebec as in the other larger provinces. But the party did establish a beachhead in francophone Quebec.

Over the same period, the Bloc Quebecois — the party that had dominated the province for two decades — seemed headed for oblivion.

But if Harper could claim some credit — along with the NDP — for the demise of the Bloc Quebecois, Scheer is similarly contributing to the sovereigntist party’s enduring resurgence.

This week, Abacus pegged the Conservatives in Quebec at 14 per cent, 21 points behind the Liberals and 18 points behind the Bloc.

Leger painted an even grimmer picture, with the federal Conservatives down to 10 per cent. And, while Scheer’s party has declined over the pandemic, the Bloc has held its own.

It is not necessary to expect that the reward of a Liberal landslide awaits Justin Trudeau on the other side of the pandemic to know that what currently ails the Conservative party is not just circumstantial.

Yes, Scheer himself has become an albatross around his party’s neck.

Even in the conservative heartland of Alberta, 40 per cent of the voters, who self-identify as Conservative supporters, disapprove of the outgoing leader’s performance.

In hindsight, many Conservative MPs wish they had opposed his bid to continue to serve as leader over the course of the leadership campaign.

Someone less inclined to double down on tone-deaf critiques of the government would almost certainly have done a better job of keeping the party in the game.

In any event, it is hard to see how anyone could have done worse.

When 75 per cent to 80 per cent of voters say they approve of the mix of measures the Liberals have put forward to manage the pandemic fallout, hammering the message that Trudeau is failing Canadians falls spectacularly short of offering a credible alternative narrative to that of the government.

And yet, to this day, according to Abacus, 59 per cent of Conservative supporters are still itching for an election between now and this time next year.

For the sake of comparison, only one in four Liberal voters — even as the polls increasingly favour Trudeau’s party — are pining for a return to the polls over the next 12 months.

Apparently, it is not just the current Conservative leadership team that lives in a parallel political universe.

Chantal Hebert is a columnist with Torstar Syndicate Services.

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