The biggest question Conservatives will ask themselves when they wake up the day after one of the most bitter and highly contested federal elections in recent memory will be: what if we'd had a different leader?
Not just any leader. A more effective, more politically savvy one that Canadians could feel comfortable with leading the country on issues such as the economy, foreign affairs, Indigenous issues and the environment.
What if the Conservatives had a leader who didn’t alienate voters, one who could stay on message and present a coherent, intelligent platform to voters? One who didn’t look like a deer caught in the headlights when asked difficult questions by reporters?
Would it have made a difference? Likely.
It’s not that Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer was a complete disaster in this campaign. We’ve seen worse: Stockwell Day, Michael Ignatieff.
But in the end, Scheer’s performance during the past 41 days landed somewhere between mediocre and grossly disappointing.
Opposition parties and their leaders don’t really win government. Incumbents usually defeat themselves over time. All prime ministers and their parties face the unavoidable reality that voters grow tired of them. They all get the boot eventually. It happens to every prime minister; Harper and the Conservatives, Chretien/Martin and the Liberals, Mulroney.
It’s rarely a single issue that causes them to lose office (although events such as the sponsorship scandal or the SNC-Lavalin affair can hasten the demise). People just get tired of seeing the same face and hearing the same platitudes.
Most governments eventually commit enough gaffes over time to fall out of favour with voters. They die the death of a thousand cuts.
But that usually takes time, more than one term in office. The fact Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had such difficulty getting re-elected after just four years underscores how poorly he’s performed.
It’s not that Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer was a complete disaster in this campaign. We’ve seen worse: Stockwell Day, Michael Ignatieff. But in the end, Scheer’s performance during the past 41 days landed somewhere between mediocre and grossly disappointing
There’s another reality in politics when it comes to the changing of the guard: when the public is ready to dismiss a government, there has to be a reasonable alternative waiting in the wings to take the helm. People have to feel at least mildly comfortable with the other guy to fire the incumbent.
The stronger the time-for-a-change dynamic, the less that matters. But it does factor into the equation. In this case, that other guy was Scheer.
There was a time-for-a-change dynamic under Trudeau, enough to demote his party to minority status. But it wasn’t overwhelming. If it were, the Liberals would have been shown the door regardless of who the Conservative leader was.
But a more effective Conservative leader may have made the difference between a Liberal and a Conservative minority.
Election campaigns can move in dramatically different directions depending on the cast of characters in the game. The combination of a mild time-for-a-change dynamic with a more effective challenger could have yielded very different results.
It’s hard to imagine Scheer toppling Trudeau 18-24 months from now — the typical period minority governments last — in the next federal election
The question now is, what do the Conservatives do about it? They clearly need a new leader. They will continue to handicap their chances at winning government going forward if they fail to improve the quality of their leadership.
It’s hard to imagine Scheer toppling Trudeau 18-24 months from now — the typical period minority governments last — in the next federal election unless the time-for-a-change dynamic strengthens significantly.
Do the Conservatives want to take that chance? Or do they want to put their best foot forward and face the Liberals in the next race with a more marketable leader?
Some Conservatives were secretly hoping for a Liberal win so they could do just that: find a new leader who could win successive majorities and more aptly represent their interests. For them, Monday’s outcome wasn’t all bad, as long as they can convince their party to toss Scheer and bring in a superior replacement.
Who that new leader would be is anybody’s guess. But it wouldn’t take much for the party to improve on the status quo.
As the Conservatives lick their wounds following a lacklustre and mostly disappointing campaign, they have some big decisions to make.
Tom has been covering Manitoba politics since the early 1990s and joined the Winnipeg Free Press news team in 2019.