THE Conservative Party of Canada’s leadership contest has already taken some wild twists and turns. It didn’t take long for the race’s main competitors to drop the gloves, and the vote itself is still five months away.
The popularity of the main candidates with Conservative members and sympathizers is already clearly established, with veteran MP Pierre Poilievre way out in front. Former Quebec premier Jean Charest is seen to be the runner-up, though far behind Poilievre. MP Leslyn Lewis and Brampton Mayor Patrick Brown bring up the rear.
Poilievre is also holding rallies throughout the country at which he is drawing jaw-droppingly large crowds of sympathizers. But while he is leading, this may change. As time goes on, attacks from his contenders may dent the Carleton MP’s popularity. And his three competitors have many months to sell party memberships that could ultimately thwart Poilievre’s ambitions.
Charest can recruit in Quebec, where the CPC is currently weak; Lewis has shown skill in bringing social conservatives on board; and Brown has been targeting cultural communities with an eye for boosting memberships.
But there is another measure of popularity, and this one should provide reassurance to Poilievre: caucus support. How many MPs from the party’s 119-member caucus have endorsed each of the candidates?
According to Wikipedia, 51 MPs have endorsed Poilievre. In contrast, Charest, an outsider to the current caucus, has been endorsed by only 11 MPs, almost all of whom are from Quebec. Lewis has scored seven endorsements, Brown only four.
Caucus support matters because MPs can help leadership contenders by working their constituencies, drumming up support from existing members and convincing lapsed members to renew.
But, more importantly, the caucus is important because it is extremely difficult to lead parties without the support of MPs. This was recognized in the past when Canadian parties allowed a simple caucus vote to select the party leader. This method ensured that leaders always enjoyed the support of the caucus.
But with the evolution of leadership selection methods though conventions to the current system in which all members vote, there is now potential for the membership to select a leader with little or no support in caucus.
Consider the case of Stockwell Day, who was elected leader of the Canadian Alliance — the predecessor to the modern Conservative Party — in 2000. Day was young and energetic, and there was worry in the Liberal government that he would make prime minister Jean Chretien look old and tired in comparison.
But Day lacked support in the party caucus, and he made little attempt to boost that support after becoming leader.
When Day went on to lose the 2000 federal election, he faced a rebellious caucus. MPs openly criticized him in the media and even bolted from the party. Facing a concerted campaign from within the party, Day had little choice but to vacate the leadership. Despite having the support of the party membership, Day couldn’t survive as leader without the support of his caucus.
The party’s next leader, Stephen Harper, provides a clear contrast. Like Day, after being elected leader Harper went on to lose his first election to the Liberals. But unlike Day, Harper enjoyed wide support in the party caucus, as many MPs had previously endorsed him as a leadership contender. Harper relied on his caucus to survive the election loss in 2004, and went on to become prime minister in the next election.
The most important thing for any politician, and especially any party leader, is simply to survive. And support from the caucus is indispensable to doing so.
If the current trends continue and Poilievre goes on to win, he will, like Harper, return to Ottawa as leader with deep support in the party caucus that will allow him significant freedom to get his bearings as leader.
But the opposite is true for the other leadership contenders. Charest as leader would rely on the perception that he can finally beat Justin Trudeau in the next election. But if he fails to do so, the caucus will likely not tolerate him for long. Indeed, I wonder if the caucus will not rebel even prior to the next election if Charest ends up as leader.
Some party leaders in Canadian history have been outstanding managers of their caucuses, building and maintaining support that could be cashed in when necessary. Former prime minister Brian Mulroney — coincidentally, Charest’s boss when he was a federal minister — is often cited as an example of an outstanding caucus manager.
Charest would be well advised to quickly pick up the phone and solicit Mulroney’s advice on how to do so if he somehow manages to win this leadership race.
Royce Koop is a professor of political studies at the University of Manitoba and academic director of the Centre for Social Science Research and Policy.