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ANDREW COYNE: No point in Tories changing their leader if they don't change their message

Conservative leader Andrew Scheer speaks at a news conference a day after losing the federal election to Justin Trudeau, in Regina on Oct. 22, 2019.
Conservative leader Andrew Scheer speaks at a news conference a day after losing the federal election to Justin Trudeau, in Regina on Oct. 22, 2019.

Should Andrew Scheer step down as Conservative leader? Probably, but it’s beside the point. Scheer is more a symptom of the Conservatives’ malaise than a cause.

The party was unable to attract the support of more than 35 per cent of voters in this election, but that has been more or less the case for most of the last 30 years, ever since the breakup of the Mulroney coalition. In three elections (1993-2000) when the right-of-centre vote was split between the Reform and Progressive Conservative parties it averaged about 37 per cent of the vote. In five elections as the Conservative party under Stephen Harper’s leadership it averaged 35 per cent.

Elsewhere I’ve argued that the conservative cause might have been better served if it had remained divided, but at the very least the party might have taken the opportunity of its 2015 defeat to have a little rethink. Instead, it elected Scheer as its leader, who pursued largely the same approach — even the same policies — as his predecessor. But that’s the party’s fault as much as his. Scheer is the kind of leader parties elect when they no longer believe in much and do not care to defend what they do.

Was Scheer a terrible campaigner, by turns hesitant, defensive and dishonest, as uninspiring as a speaker as he was unimpressive as a debater, unable to articulate a compelling case against the government in either official language, and offering no evidence of having thought much about even his own beliefs let alone others’? Of course.

Were the Liberals vulnerable, even with unemployment at 40-year lows, given the widespread discontent with its imperious, doctrinaire approach to governing and the catalogue of folly, scandal and misconduct attached to its leader? Undoubtedly.

Should the Conservatives’ performance, then, be measured not against how they did last time — 22 more seats, on the backs of a two per cent increase in the popular vote — but how well they ought to have done? And might they have done better under a different leader? Yeah, probably.

But not much better. Whatever Scheer’s failings, they pale in significance beside the more fundamental limitations of the party’s appeal — notably, its unwillingness or inability to come up with a coherent conservative message, relevant to the concerns of voters and distinct from those of the other parties, and to present it in a persuasive manner.

To be sure, his own limitations looked worse in this light. Some have put the blame on his socially conservative views; others have emphasized the fibs and omissions in his resume; still others have decried his inability to give a straight answer, on these and other matters, in an election the Conservatives had sought to make about Justin Trudeau’s inauthenticity.

But if you don’t want to talk about the things your opponents are saying about you, it helps to have something else to talk about. If Scheer found himself answering questions about whether, as a young man, he had met all of the requirements to be licensed as an insurance broker in Saskatchewan, it may have been because his own message was even less interesting.

Of course, the leader is responsible for the entire campaign, including the platform. So Scheer’s leadership cannot be divorced from the decision to run against the Liberal record while offering little to suggest Conservatives would govern any differently — other than to do even less about climate change. The Conservatives seem to have convinced themselves the voters had so repented of their choice four years ago that they would swallow the same thin gruel of micro-tax credits they had previously found so unappetizing. That, too, is Scheer’s responsibility.

But if all the Tories do is change leaders, without a more fundamental change of course, as I suspect more than a few of those calling for his head would prefer, they will be doomed to much the same result. The problems of the Conservative party are not of a kind that can be cured by a simple leaderectomy. They are deep and enduring.

We can talk about the party’s repeated shutouts in the big cities, or its failure to connect with voters in suburban Ontario. We can dwell on its continuing unpopularity with educated voters, or minorities, or women, or youth. We can snicker that, for all its endless pandering to Quebec nationalism, it still cannot win more than a handful of seats there.

If all the Tories do is change leaders, without a more fundamental change of course they will be doomed to much the same result

But what we are really talking about is a conservatism that lacks three things: confidence, coherence and caring. The three are inter-connected. Until and unless the Conservatives think through what they believe and why — until, that is, they have a coherent alternative of their own to offer — they will be stuck in reflexive opposition to whatever the left proposes, on issues from inequality to diversity to climate change.

So long as the party fails to propose such an alternative, it will be accused of not caring about these concerns; so long as it appears to validate that charge, it will continue to lose; and so long as it keeps losing, it will lack the confidence to change. Conservatives do not need to mimic their opponents’ approaches, but they do need to be relevant.

They need, that is, to rediscover their own philosophy — to renew their understanding of conservative principles, only updated and applied to the issues of today. As a party of ideas, they have some hope of breaking out of the cul-de-sac in which they now find themselves. As a mere vehicle for the ambitions of whoever the party settles on as Scheer’s replacement — a Peter MacKay here, a Rona Ambrose there — they are condemned to repeat the cycle.

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Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019

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