Scheer's departure means social conservatism is on the defensive

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Andrew Scheer speaking at Alberta's United Conservative Party annual general meeting in November. Image: Andrew Scheer/Flickr

It should come as little surprise to anyone who has been paying even passing attention that Conservative leader Andrew Scheer decided to resign. 

From the minute the results of October's election became official, Conservative party insiders and activists started treating Scheer as a dead opposition leader walking. Even staunch, hard-right Harper Conservative operatives openly expressed dismay at Scheer's well-documented and public record as a faith-based, social conservative, hostile to reproductive and same-sex rights. 

Since the election, Conservatives who prefer actual victory to the moral kind have been saying that it is no longer good enough to say "if elected I will not change the current laws on same-sex marriage and abortion." That careful formulation worked for Stephen Harper, and when Scheer faced questions about his own record, including his refusal to take part in Pride parades, he tried the same tack. 

Today, however, it seems that attitudes have changed. Political leaders who want to win enough votes to form a government must do more than accept the right to same-sex marriage and a woman's right to choose. They must emphatically support those rights.

That fact signals a significant political sea change. 

It was not too long ago that an Ontario NDP government could be skittish about legally recognizing same sex relationships. 

In the United States -- where, granted, religious conservatives have always been more influential than in Canada -- it was a Democrat, Bill Clinton, who signed the odious and discriminatory Defense of Marriage Act into law. The next Democratic president, Barack Obama, took his time to say his views on that issue had "evolved."

Scheer's resignation signals that in Canada opposition to same-sex and reproductive rights has now acquired the status that rabid anti-bilingualism has long held. It is an out-there, fringe position, well beyond the mainstream. 

What kind of new leader?

We will have to wait and see who the Conservatives choose as their next leader. 

There will be many aspirants to the job. Lots of politicians will relish the chance to face a Liberal minority government that did not even win the popular vote in the last election. 

Among sitting MPs there are Erin O'Toole, a military veteran who speaks fluent French, and Michael Chong, the last of the deep-red, Red Tories. Both ran last time. 

Chong is well-placed to champion the view that the Conservatives must offer something other than a passive-aggressive policy on climate change if they expect voters to take them seriously. He has also pushed democratic reform measures in the House, and could make that agenda part of his offer to the party.

If the Conservatives seriously aspire to reinvent themselves as a centrist party, Chong would be their ideal leader. That is not too likely, however, given the makeup of the party's base.

Pierre Poilievre, the hard-right ideologue who represents an Ottawa-area riding, is much-beloved among the party faithful, and there's a good chance he might make a run for it. As minister for democratic reform, Poilievre was the author of that misnamed piece of voter suppression legislation, the Fair Elections Act.

Peter MacKay, the last Progressive Conservative leader before the merger with the renegade Canadian Alliance, and a former senior Harper minister, will be very tempted to take a shot. 

MacKay is an articulate, smart politician, with an impeccable pedigree. His father, Elmer MacKay, was the Conservative MP who stepped aside when newly chosen party leader Brian Mulroney needed a seat in the House. And the younger MacKay has another asset, a highly presentable life partner: Nazanin Afshin-Jam, a human rights activist. 

There are doubts about the fluency of MacKay's French, however, as there are about that of another appealing, notionally centrist candidate, defeated Conservative candidate and former cabinet minister Lisa Raitt. 

There are no such doubts about Jason Kenney, long time Harper front bencher and currently premier of a dyspeptic and angry Alberta, nor about Ontario Transportation Minister Caroline Mulroney, daughter of Brian. Both are entirely comfortable in la langue de Molière.

Mulroney might welcome the chance to get away from the listing ship captained by Ontario Premier Doug Ford. When she ran against Ford to be leader of the Ontario Progressive Conservatives, she initially supported a price on carbon, but backed away from that position under pressure from other candidates. Still, Mulroney would have more environmental credentials than most potential candidates. 

In his heart of hearts, Kenney no doubt covets the federal leader's job. But it is hard to see how he could now re-invent himself as something other than an Alberta-firster, which is not what Conservatives need to gain support where they most need it, east of the Manitoba-Ontario border. 

Some Conservatives still whisper the name of Jean Charest, former Mulroney minister, leader of the Progressive Conservatives at their lowest point, and long-serving Liberal premier of Quebec. 

Charest was once a wunderkind. He was only 34 when he ran against Kim Campbell to succeed Brian Mulroney, not only as party leader but as prime minister. That was in 1993. He has acquired both a lot of experience and a lot of baggage since then -- and has said on numerous occasions that he is out of politics for good. 

One would have to consider Charest a long shot at this stage.

A dark horse? 

There will be plenty of other names, and we will be hearing them pretty soon. And the race could produce a surprise winner. 

When the Progressive Conservatives chose Joe Clark in 1976, he was an obscure MP for a Calgary riding. Few considered Clark to be in the top tier of candidates when he first announced. 

Clark was young (still in his 30s), slightly awkward, and lacking much in the way of experience when he narrowly won the leadership on the fourth ballot, but he went on to win the 1979 election, beating Pierre Trudeau quite handily everywhere but in Quebec. 

Had Clark and his senior advisors been more adept at handling their minority situation, he might have served as prime minister for a lot longer than the nine months he actually held the job.

And the man they called Joe Who wasn't the only dark horse to ever win the leadership. 

During the Second World War, when the Conservatives were at their nadir in public support, party elders approached the United Farmers (or Progressive Party) Manitoba premier John Bracken to take over. They considered the fact that Bracken belonged to a different political formation, and had never been a Conservative, only a minor inconvenience.

Bracken thought about the offer for a while, and agreed, as long as the party rebranded itself as the Progressive Conservative party. In the next election, with a new name and new leader, the party won 29 more seats, but still lost to Mackenzie King's Liberals. 

Despite that relative success, the knives immediately came out for the saviour-from-the-west the party had recruited just a few years earlier. 

Conservative conspirators did not even give Bracken credit for the new seats the party had won, which were mostly from Ontario. If credit was due, they said, it was to the popular Conservative Ontario premier, George Drew. As fast as you could say Progressive Conservative backwards, they chose Drew as their new leader.

Drew went on to badly lose the next election to a new Liberal leader, Louis St. Laurent. The voters thought the former Ontario premier too much of a stiff Bay Street baron compared to the amiable "Uncle Louis." 

Bracken ran as a Progressive Conservative candidate in that election, and suffered a humiliating loss to a Liberal. After that election, he retired from politics for good. He died, forgotten, 20 years later. 

All that, of course, is ancient history.

Karl Nerenberg has been a journalist and filmmaker for more than 25 years. He is rabble's politics reporter.

Image: Andrew Scheer/Flickr

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