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Here is what the next six months might look like for the Conservatives. Their leader, Andrew Scheer, having stumbled through an election campaign he might have won with a platform that was sure to lose, ignores widespread calls to quit in favour of hanging on until the April leadership review.
Unable to dislodge him before then, his critics in the party focus on ensuring he does not survive the vote. The months pass, filled with anonymous sniping in the media, and punctuated by increasingly strident calls for his dismissal from riding executives and party grandees.
At the convention, he neither does so well (more than 90 per cent support) as to clearly confirm his leadership, nor so poorly (less than 50 per cent) as to clearly end it, but something in between. Without consensus on what level of support (70 per cent? 75? 80?) would be sufficient, the leader might attempt to carry on — but in such a weakened state that he could do little but invite further attacks on his leadership.
Alternatively, he might step down, leaving the party leaderless for another six to nine months while it elects a replacement, by the same dirty, gameable system of mass membership sales that elected him. Either way, consumed with its own internal struggles, the party offers no serious opposition to the governing Liberals, probably for the life of this Parliament.
So that’s one way the party can deal with its leadership problem. The other is to get it over with: a clean, quick coup that, however brutal, leaves a lot less blood on the floor than the alternative. Until now the party has lacked the means to such a swift and certain end. This week, the opportunity has arrived to arm itself with it.
That opportunity is Wednesday’s meeting of the Conservative caucus — the first since the election. Among the items caucus is required to take up at that meeting, by law, is whether it will accept the four powers provisionally conferred upon it and the other “recognized” party caucuses (those with at last 12 members) by the Reform Act 2014. These are: the power to elect or remove the caucus chair, the power to expel or readmit a member of caucus, and, crucially, the powers to remove the leader and to choose his replacement pro tem, pending election of a new leader by the party at large.
Leaving it to caucuses to decide whether to so empower themselves was one of the compromises Conservative MP Michael Chong, the act’s sponsor, was obliged to accept as the price of party leaders’ support, without which it would not have passed. The leaders calculated their caucuses were so cowed that they would continue to obey them in all things, including an order not to assume any powers the leaders would rather they not have — especially not the power to remove them.
For the most part, this judgment proved correct. Indeed, in its first test, after the 2015 election, the law was largely a bust. Not only did the Liberals and NDP not vote to give themselves the powers envisaged by the Reform Act, they did not even obey the act, either failing to hold the votes required or holding them long after that first meeting.
The exception was the Conservatives, whose caucus voted to assume three of the four powers, including a modified version of the power to elect an interim leader (the act stipulates only members of Parliament are to vote on this; the Tories broadened the definition of “caucus” to include senators). The sticking point, naturally, was the power to remove the leader.
It will be interesting to see whether the Liberals and the NDP, now joined by the Bloc, obey the law this time, and hold the votes as required. But it will be fascinating to see how the Conservatives vote.
Should a majority of MPs vote to assume the leader-removal power, it would take the signatures of just 20 per cent of them (25 out of 121) at any time to force a vote on Scheer’s leadership, by secret ballot. Were a majority in that vote to support his removal, he’d be gone as of that date. The April convention might then be devoted to selecting a new leader.
It’s unlikely the caucus will be so bold, of course. Many will blanch at turfing a leader who was elected by a vote of 51 per cent of party members at large (even if many of those members, like the dairy farmers who provided Scheer’s margin of victory, had no prior connection to the party, but only signed on for the day).
Many will blanch at turfing a leader who was elected by a vote of 51 per cent of party members at large
But Conservative members do not have to go so far as to remove the leader to make their point. It would be enough to vote to give themselves the power to do so. Chances are Scheer would take the hint: his position had become untenable. But even if he didn’t, caucus would have put him on notice. It would always remain open to them to pull the trigger on some later occasion.
And not only him, but future leaders. Ideally we would give caucus the power, not just to remove the leader but to choose his replacement: the classic Westminster model. But even in its half-realized, Reform Act version, it would be a revolution. No longer could a party leader remain aloof from caucus, holed up with his advisers, accountable to no one. From now on, he would have to answer to members of caucus. Whereas at present it is they who must answer to him.
Probably the Tories will be too timid even to do that. They should ask themselves: is the alternative — a six-month campaign of internal bloodletting that at best results in a still longer leadership race, and at worst resolves nothing — any better?
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019