Looking to the New Year there is one gaping question in Canadian politics: who will succeed Stephen Harper to the leadership of the Conservative Party of Canada? Now all the indicators are that the actual vote might be as far as two years off, and events to the south of us have shown that even the most unthinkable things can come to be in politics, so proclaiming a front runner at this point or even speculating on the odds for various potential candidates would be the height of prematurity at this point. What would not, however, would be to sum up the names of who might run at this point along with the respective strengths and weaknesses.
Ask twelve people their thoughts on who the next leader should be and likely you will get an even dozen answers. Various figures in the media also have shown no reluctance to make their preferences known. For my part I have no specific favorite as of yet. I do however have a vague criteria of who I would like to see hold the job when all is said and done. Ideally I would like to see a woman, from central Canada, who first was elected to the House of Commons after the 2004 merger of the old Canadian Alliance and Progressive Conservative parties that formed the present day Conservatives. I realize that most of these qualifiers are rather superficial, but politics is a superficial business and it is my personal opinion of the last election that where we ultimately lost big was on the front of visuals. When you actually asked Canadian voters their opinions on most of the issues (be it taxes, balanced budgets, refugees, ISIS or the niqab) they actually were on the government’s side; what seemed to move them to Trudeau’s corner was an overall sense that Harper had been around for too long and a desire for something new and different. A woman from Ontario or Quebec would do a great deal to counter the narrative that the Conservatives are all a bunch of old white guys from Alberta, and having a leader who is not immediately identifiable as being from either the old Canadian Alliance or Progressive Conservative wings of the party would do a great deal to end the endless speculation of the media about which camp is really running things and whether the old rift between Western and Eastern Canadian conservatism is really dead and buried. All that said, were a compelling case made for someone who did not fit the aforementioned specifications I could easily change my mind.
So here follows my thoughts on the likely candidates so far. For the sake of brevity I have left off anyone who has formally announced they are not running (yes we all love Brad Wall and wish he’d change his mind, but until he does I’ll take him at his word).
Peter Mackay: as former leader of the Progressive Conservatives and the holder of such prominent roles as Foreign Affairs, Justice and Defense under the old Harper government Mackay likely would have some of the highest name recognition of any candidate entering the race and one can tell that many in the media are practically desperate from him to run; why I am not so sure (his reputation as a moderate seems to stem solely from the fact he helmed the Progressive Conservatives before the merge, ignoring that everything else suggests he’s a true Blue Tory with solidly conservative credentials…hardly the reincarnation of the old Red Tories so many of our esteemed pundits long for the return of). My reservations have less to do with the illusion of moderation about him and more to do with the fact that while far from the worst culprit of the Harper administration he did have several fumbles as a cabinet minister, particularly on the defense portfolio. Also, as unfair as it is, his undeniable connection to the old PCs could easily spark the kind of interparty conflict that the conservatives can least afford at this time. Despite this, should he run he would be contender and one not to be dismissed easily.
Jason Kenney: probably the closest cabinet minister to the former PM except possibly John Baird, and one of his most trusted lieutenants, Kenney would undoubtedly be formidable if he chose to run. After Mackay he probably has the highest profile of any contender within the party, and as the party’s point man for ethnic outreach he would have a readymade network he could call on to support his bid (and as we saw provincially that kind of support can easily swing the race in someone’s favour). As with Mackay, I have my reservations. Kenney is unquestionably associated with old Canadian Alliance/Reformer wing of the party and has a reputation as a staunch social conservative which could hurt him in the general election (yes I know, I’m also a fire-breathing traditionalist myself, but I’m a pragmatic one). However, given his support and proven ability to attract ethnic voters (the one area of the old 2011 majority coalition where the party did take a hit in the last election) only a fool would rule him out prematurely. Despite the fact he misses every one of my specified preferences for the next leader were he to run I would have to strongly give him my consideration.
Lisa Raitt: as a woman, first elected in 2008, from Ontario, the former Transport minister definitely ticks off all my aforementioned boxes, and while not the among the most prominent of the former Harper-era cabinet ministers she certainly demonstrated both presence, spine and competence during her tenure with the last government; I can think of no major screw-ups associated with her that spring to mind. There are some negatives, however, the most prominent being that her French is reputedly poor (and given that Quebec was the one province where the Party managed to grow its support last time that is sadly a big negative if true). I also recall her having some health issues a few years back, which also shouldn’t be dismissed lightly. Neither of those are necessarily a deal breaker, however, and certainly should not overshadow her aforementioned positives.
Kellie Leitch: before going further I feel compelled to mentioned that Dr. Leitch was, until the latest redistricting, the MP for my old hometown and I have had the opportunity to meet her on a number of occasions (though I would not go so far as to call us even the most casual of acquaintances). Much like Ms. Raitt, Leitch had a solid if junior role in the last government and meets my aforementioned desires of being a woman from central Canada elected after the merger. My honest assessment of her is that she is not overburdened by either charisma or personal warmth (though the same could be, and often was, said about Stephen Harper and it didn’t stop him from ruling for nearly a decade), but does possess an air of both strength and competence. She’s reputedly a quite strong organizer, and while serving in cabinet also worked full time as a pediatric surgeon at an Ottawa hospital so she undeniably has the work ethic for the job. She also was close friends with the late, former Finance Minister, Jim Flaherty and has a long history with the party going back to her youth days when she was President of the OPCYA. A more serious handicap is her lack of name recognition and a general ignorance of where she stands politically with the general public.
Michelle Rempel: two out of three here, as Rempel hails from Calgary, but still worth consideration. As immigration critic she’s taken on one of the more high profile portfolios in the shadow cabinet given the attention given to the refugee crisis in recent months and demonstrated both intelligence and spine in ample amounts in doing so. She’s managed to successfully hold the Liberal government to account and point out their rather mediocre performance on the matter so far while not descending into the kind of pseudo-nativist rubbish that this easily could have become in less nimble hands. With less than five years in office, however, it’s fair to say she is still a rookie, albeit talented, MP; this would likely be more of a barrier to her winning the leadership however than a comment on her ability to perform as one, however, as it would mean she’d be facing opponents with both better name recognition and longer tenures with the party, and therefore longer lists of favours and broader networks of contacts to call upon for support.
Tony Clement: again in the name of disclosure I must state that during my very brief stint working for John Baird when he held the Transportation and Infrastructure portfolio I had the opportunity to meet Clement on more than a few occasions given the two are friends who go back to the Mike Harris days together. The also ran in the post-merger leadership race between Stephen Harper and Belinda Stronach, Clement was probably one of the most quietly competent ministers in the entire Harper cabinet and I think he has both the talent and the experience to make an excellent Prime Minister. Unfortunately (and I hate to say this because it is unquestionably unfair) he is probably the worst candidate we could put forward at this time, simply because he epitomizes the stereotype most people hold of a conservative, a middle-aged white guy who is a bit of a nerd. It’s completely unfair, and in a truly just world superficial considerations like this would not matter, but I cannot shake the feeling that Clement would be the Robert Stanfield of our time and go down in history as one of the best Prime Ministers Canada never had.
Maxime Bernier: as probably the most prominent member of the CPC’s Quebec caucus, and a favorite with the party’s libertarian inclined youth, any list would be incomplete without including the MP from the Beauce. It must again be stressed that Quebec was the one province where the Party actually grew it’s support in the last election. Monsieur Bernier also, on a superficial note, is probably the only man in caucus who would beat Trudeau in the looks department, being both conventionally quite handsome and one of the few members of parliament with any sense of how to dress (hey, comments like that get made about female politicians all the time so check your outrage). While I doubt the press has forgotten the Julie Couillard affair I’d be very surprised if the public remembers or would care if they did. I will say that the fact Bernier was man enough to accept being kicked from cabinet over it without either throwing a tantrum or quitting politics altogether speaks volumes for his character. As I remember, his English was quite poor (which combined with being a loveable dope doomed Stephanie Dion’s leadership from the get go) but I’ve heard it has improved in recent years. My greatest reservation is that he’s a libertarian from Quebec which could easily translate into him being a republican (support for the Monarchy is probably the only principle I will not compromise on).
Michael Chong: a prominent advocate of democratic reform who was unafraid to break ranks with the Harper government a number of times, Chong seems to be popular with a lot of the press as a result. I met him on one occasion myself and thought he was an intelligent and pleasant enough chap, but I’ve heard from those who know him better than he has a reputation for being a rather arrogant and unpleasant individual and is a very red, Red Tory. The fact that Lawrence Martin, of all people, has endorsed him for leader leaves me feeling quite comfortable in saying “no thank you”.
Carolyn Mulroney Lapham: a surprise name given that she’s never held office but one I’ve heard mentioned a few times. I actually have no issue with someone taking the leadership without first being elected to the House of Commons is they have other relevant life experiences (it certainly didn’t stop Mulroney Senior from winning two back to back majorities). I also don’t have an issue with her being Brian Mulroney’s daughter, in my opinion he was one of our better Prime Ministers and as anyone who knows me would guess I have absolutely no objection to the idea of hereditary succession. The Mulroney name is unpopular with some Tories though, especially out West, which bears remembering.
Jim Prentice: before his stint in provincial politics I don’t doubt Prentice would have been a contender. Now, alas, he will always be remembered as the man who ran as a conservative in Alberta and lost to the NDP.
Joe Clark: he might think he could win (and finally fulfill his dream of becoming Prime Minister again) but no one else does.
If I’ve missed anyone please do not take it has a slight or snub but merely a reflection that even a political junkie like myself only has so much capacity to remember names. I will admit I feel rather optimistic despite the bitter sting of losing, especially losing to someone named Trudeau. For all the harping by the usual suspects the last election wasn’t a slaughter. Trudeau basically won the same share of the vote and proportion of seats as the Tories did in 2011, and the only area we really took a beating was the ‘905. Given the increasing list of flip-flops and flubs acquired by the Dauphin despite his ever so short time in office as of yet, it is highly likely 2016 might bring about a serious case of buyers’ remorse amongst Canadians. If so, the prospects for the next election will be good and we likely will be choosing not just our next Party leader but the next Prime Minister, so choose carefully.