Eight months after he bolted from the Conservative party, and with the clock ticking to the October general election, the buzz that attended Maxime Bernier’s stormy departure from Andrew Scheer’s caucus to create a rival party has dissipated.
Bernier has so far failed to parlay the significant political capital he had accumulated as a Conservative party leadership front-runner into a lasting electoral down payment for his People’s Party. If anything, he has depleted that capital.
Two years ago, one in two Conservative members supported Bernier’s bid to succeed Stephen Harper.
For 12 of the 13 ballots it took to declare a winner, the leadership was his to lose.
Even after his defeat, the Quebec MP remained a force to be reckoned with within the conservative movement. Bernier enjoyed a profile higher than that of his rookie leader. He was also a more powerful fundraising magnet.
At the time of the Scheer-Bernier breakup, the party had cause to fear that another crippling schism of the kind that pit conservatives against conservatives at the federal level for more than a decade in the late-1980s and 1990s was once again in the making.
So far, those fears have proven to be unfounded.
Since Bernier set out on his own last summer, Scheer’s Conservatives have vaulted to first place in voting intentions. Over the same period, Scheer’s personal ratings have improved while Bernier’s star has faded.
This week, Nanos reported that only one in six Canadians believes Bernier has the qualities required of a leader — a rating that puts him at the bottom of the leaders’ pile, below his Green Party and Bloc Quebecois rivals.
Increasingly, Bernier comes across as a politician clutching at policy straws.
Earlier this month, he (or whoever uses his name on social media) spent the better part of a week ranting against the Liberal suggestion that federally regulated employers provide free feminine hygiene products to their employees.
Whatever one may think about the government proposal, a battle against free tampons hardly qualifies as a hill to die — or even fight — on.
The template for Bernier’s competing conservative bid was Preston Manning’s Reform Party. It too started off with out-of-right-field policies (the abolition of the federal policy of official bilingualism comes to mind), a staunch social conservative agenda and a number of recruits who held hair-raising views.
It took six years from Reform’s founding for the party to become a force in the House of Commons.
Bernier used to argue he could compress those years into mere months, thanks to the advent of social media. But Manning had a solid regional base in Western Canada to build from. Bernier, by comparison, is anything but a prophet in his home province.
Premier Francois Legault’s CAQ government will have nothing to do with him. Alberta’s Jason Kenney and Ontario’s Doug Ford are similarly disinclined to give the People’s Party and its leader the time of day. Ditto in the case of most power brokers in the larger conservative community.
The Reform Party came into being at a time when many conservative voters — especially in Western Canada — felt betrayed by those of their own who sat in Brian Mulroney’s government.
In contrast, for most conservative sympathizers — and many of those who supported Bernier for the Conservative leadership two years ago — Job 1 this year is to oust Justin Trudeau’s Liberals from office.
Less than six months from the October election, conservative fears that Bernier would split the vote to the Liberals’ advantage have largely given way in many quarters of the Canadian right to relief that he did not succeed in becoming Conservative leader.
Chantal Hebert is a columnist with Torstar Syndication Services.