Could it be the Red Tories’ time?

Red Tories have never had a better chance to unify Canada’s Conservatives. The question is: under whose leadership
By Steve Paikin - Published on Nov 21, 2019
Former Conservative cabinet minister Peter MacKay appeared on The Agenda Wednesday night to discuss how minority parliaments can work.

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If you ever needed more evidence that politics is a funny business, just look at the results of the last federal election.

The Liberal vote went down, but the prime minister seems safe in his job as party leader. The NDP vote went down, but leader Jagmeet Singh also seems secure. The Greens’ vote went up, and yet leader Elizabeth May resigned.

Strangely enough, the only national party leader whose future remains uncertain is the guy who got more votes than anyone else.

Politics is a game of expectations — and whether it’s fair or not — expectations for the Conservatives were sky high, given how damaged Justin Trudeau’s brand was. And so all eyes are on the Conservatives to see what party members intend to do about Andrew Scheer’s future.

While the election campaign itself might not have had any single, agreed-upon narrative, the book on Scheer’s performance has pretty much been written: he didn’t have anything relevant to say about climate change; too many people (especially central Canadians) question his views on diversity and LGBTQ rights; and his attempts to come across as an authentic guy were undermined when it emerged that he was a dual U.S.-Canadian citizen and had never really been an insurance broker.

So the question conservatives are asking is: Now what? Should we assume that Scheer will grow on people (as Stephen Harper did in 2004) and win next time (as Harper did in 2006)? Or is it more likely that the public’s impression of Scheer is baked in and that he’ll evoke memories of Robert Stanfield in 1974 by losing even worse next time and ushering in another Liberal majority?

For Red Tories — conservatives who are socially liberal but sticklers for fiscal prudence and respect for democratic principles — this may be the moment they’ve been dreaming about for more than a quarter of a century. 

In 1993, the coalition that was the former Progressive Conservative Party blew up after Jean Chretien’s first win for the Liberals. The Tories were left with just two seats. Economic and social conservatives deserted the PCs and created the Reform Party. Quebec nationalists became the Bloc Québécois. And, for perhaps the first time ever, Red Tories found themselves adrift.

Mike Harris led Ontario Conservatives back to power in 1995, but he did it by taking over the party from the Red Tories and running more as a “Reformatory.” Harris wasn’t socially conservative, but he made sure that those who were felt comfortable voting for him, which they did.

Federally, small-c conservatives, under first Stockwell Day and then Stephen Harper, continued to marginalize Red Tories, and Harper made it work. After all, he won three straight elections.

But Scheer’s travails, especially in Ontario, where voters massively dumped the provincial Liberals less than a year and a half ago, have provided encouragement for bleeding-heart conservatives, who see their star in ascension.

In addition, at Queen’s Park, audacious Ford Nation-style populism has been replaced by much more moderate, pragmatic Red Toryism.

If this is one of those inflection-point moments in Canadian history when right-wing Conservatives have concluded that their party will never win again because they’re nowhere in Ontario and Quebec, then it’s a significant opening for the Red Tories to make their move and unify Conservatives under a kinder, gentler agenda.

The most obvious (although not the only) person to lead that effort is the man who was the final leader of the old Progressive Conservative Party of Canada, and with Harper, one of the co-founders of the current Conservative party.

At an October event in Washington, D.C., Peter MacKay neatly summed up what Conservative stalwarts were thinking about the Election 2019 results. He said, using an appropriately Canadian metaphor, that Scheer’s inability to defeat a damaged Liberal Party “was like having a breakaway on an open net” and missing. The quote has stuck — and been repeated numerous times — because it seems to speak for so many disappointed Conservatives.

MacKay appeared on The Agenda last night as part of a panel discussion about how minority parliaments can work. While other guests postulated that we have a hung parliament because no leader more than another was able to inspire a broad swath of Canadians, MacKay used the moment to outline an aspirational national vision “that speaks to a national purpose which could unify the fractious nature of our country.”

MacKay, 54, pointed out that, when he was younger, he spent time in the Arctic, returning there a decade ago when he was Harper’s defence minister. He saw first-hand the effects of climate change.

“It’s real,” he told Agenda viewers. But he then said that technology, not more taxes, is the solution for people who think they’re already too highly taxed.

MacKay sees a national, unifying project that would involve building pipelines to both coasts, exporting Canada’s “ethical oil to the world,” and then using those profits to spur on the green economy. He decried the current situation, which sees Atlantic Canadians refining oil from Iran, Iraq, Saudia Arabia, or Venezuela “and propping up dictatorships.”

Former Liberal MP Martha Hall Findlay, who was also on the program, endorsed the idea. “I completely agree with Peter, even though we come from different political backgrounds,” she said.

After the program, MacKay repeatedly insisted that he’s taking no steps to pursue the Conservative party leadership.  In fact, he’s publicly endorsed Scheer’s remaining as leader. When I told him that reminded me of the early 1980s, when Brian Mulroney publicly endorsed Joe Clark while Mulroney’s allies were busily organizing his leadership bid behind the scenes, he threw his hands up and exhaled deeply as if to say, I know there’s nothing I can do or say that will convince you I’m not organizing, but I’m really not.

When I asked MacKay whether his wife (and mother of his three very young children) had given him permission to get back into politics, he smiled and said: “That’s a conversation we haven’t had yet.”

Unlike John Turner, who quit politics in the mid-1970s before making a comeback as Liberal leader nearly a decade later, MacKay has been out of elective politics for only four years. Turner came back very rusty, having been out of the arena too long, and was routed by Mulroney in the 1984 election. MacKay has stayed involved, and you can tell politics still animates him. While he may not personally be organizing a leadership bid, you can be sure that others are giving it their attention, in case Scheer fails his leadership review in April.

In fairness, MacKay won’t be the only Red Tory living in Ontario urged to join the fray. MP Erin O’Toole came third to Scheer (and behind second-place Maxime Bernier) in the 2017 Conservative leadership race. He’s a likeable guy with military experience and would have ample support as well. And MP Michael Chong, who came fifth in the last leadership run and who’s made a name for himself championing increased power for backbench MPs, would presumably also garner some support. Both are considered moderate conservatives.

If Scheer falters in April, watch for the return of the Red Tories. They’ve been waiting since 1993 for this moment.

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