Premier Ford meeting with Andrew Scheer at Queen's Park in 2018. Photo: Premier of Ontario/Flickr

Conservative leader Andrew Scheer is caught between the Liberal devil and the Ontario deep blue sea.

Actually, given Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s fast sinking poll numbers, Ford Nation can’t even muster much of a blue wave. According to the Toronto Star, “the trend line is unbearably bleak for Ford,” with five public opinion surveys and internal party research reporting that the Progressive Conservative tide has turned.

Says Quito Maggi, president and CEO of Mainstreet Research, “We have never seen an incumbent premier reach these depths in popular opinion with barely a year into his mandate.”

Mainstreet’s numbers reveal that Ford has a net favourability rating of -53.5 per cent. That’s minus 53.5 per cent, a solid 20 points worse than former Liberal premier Kathleen Wynne could claim on April 30, 2018 when the Ontario election campaign was on.

Right now, Ford and his clapping seals are looking like a washout. Ford is even getting booed at his public appearances.

Which is bad news for Scheer.

That’s because Ford’s a flop and, instead of floating the federal Conservative boat higher as was expected last summer, he is now weighing it down.

Here, in the critical province of Ontario, where voters will likely be marking the deciding ballots in next fall’s federal election, the Conservative brand is being destroyed by a government that has been inflicting the cruelest and almost arbitrary-seeming cuts, timed in the most injurious ways. Like, for example, cuts being announced after budgets and plans have been set, or smack dab in the middle of fiscal years.

What’s more, even though the government’s budget was tabled weeks ago, Ontarians are learning on an almost daily basis of yet another insult hidden in its pages. That’s resulting in a non-stop negative news tsunami, which drives Ford Nation down even deeper.

Among the more controversial cuts was to Ontario municipalities and, in particular, Toronto which took a $178 million hit — to public health, childcare and transit.

Torontonians rose up, with tens of thousands signing a petition, and Mayor John Tory going door-to-door last weekend to solicit support for the city.

Then, in a surprise move last Monday, Ford flipped, reinstating much of the funding, for at least 2019.

“This is a government that acts and then gets backlash and then pulls back and then decides to listen,” NDP Leader Andrea Horwath told reporters. “They’re going about it completely backwards.”

On Tuesday, federal Finance Minister Bill Morneau described the Ford government as “cut first and think later,” while also referring to Scheer’s recent backtracking on his 2017 promise to, if the Conservatives won in the fall, balance the budget within two years.  

That’s because, last week, in a speech to Vancouver’s Canadian Club, the federal Conservative leader extended his self-imposed deficit deadline to five years, in an apparent attempt to distance himself from Ford’s killer cuts.

So now both these Conservative leaders look like they’re out of their depth.

Compounding Scheer’s problem is his recently softened stance on immigration.  

Until now, both he and Ford were in virtual lockstep, with the Ontario premier having pronounced last year that the province should “take care of our own” before finding jobs for immigrants. This year he cut legal aid services for refugee claimants.  

As for Scheer, he has finally climbed down from moves such as his supportive speech last winter to the United We Roll convoy that included Yellow Vest members. Now he’s making public commitments to diversity and equality, and telling racists they have no place in his party.

Some might say that means Scheer is trying to distinguish himself from Maxime Bernier’s populist People’s Party of Canada but, as he is doing so, he is walking right into Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s fiercely pro-immigration, pro-diversity and pro-multiculturalism trap.

On Wednesday, Scheer’s campaign blasted members with a fundraising email titled, “As Prime Minister, my government will restore fairness, order, and compassion to the immigration system.

“… as the baby boomers retire,” he continued, “We will need workers, innovators, and risk-takers to sustain a thriving economy and ensure we can maintain the high standard of living that we Canadians enjoy and rightly expect.

“We need the world’s best and brightest to choose Canada.

“And we want them to integrate fully, socially and economically.”

All of which led to convulsions in some Conservative circles, notably in the right wing MetaCanada sub-Reddit where members are railing that Scheer is giving up on “old stock Canadians” in favour of immigrants.

Will that anger the Conservative base into abandoning the Scheer ship for Bernier’s?  It certainly shows, at the very least, a change of tack on newcomers between Ford and Scheer while the latter makes a play for the immigrant vote.

So yes, Scheer is caught in a whirlpool between Trudeau, Ford and now even Bernier — which has him spinning in all directions.

He may well hit the rocks.

Antonia Zerbisias, former CBC-TV journalist and Toronto Star columnist, writes about society, media and politics.

Photo: Premier of Ontario/Flickr

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Antonia Zerbisias copy 2

Antonia Zerbisias

Freelance writer Antonia Zerbisias (@AntoniaZ) is best known for her award-winning media column and blog for the Toronto Star. But she also wrote about social justice, feminism and politics. Her career...