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JIM VIBERT: Peter MacKay may be taking a page from old Mulroney playbook

Michael de Adder cartoon for Tuesday, Oct. 29, 2019. Peter MacKay sitting at Andrew Scheer's desk saying he supports him as leader of Conservative party.
Cartoonist Michael de Adder weighs in on the Scheer-MacKay story.

During a quick trip to Washington this week, Peter MacKay rhetorically hung “a stinking albatross” around the neck of federal Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer, before returning home to Canada to make the requisite affirmation of support for the party’s leader. 

If MacKay learned anything from Brian Mulroney – and it’s a sure bet that he did – he learned that the heir apparent can’t be seen holding the knife that winds up in the leader’s back. 

The Nova Scotia native-son’s colourful condemnation of the Conservative Party of Canada performance in the federal election didn’t begin, or end, with the damning allegory of a decomposing sea bird dangling off the defeated leader. 

“To use a good Canadian analogy, it was like having a breakaway on an open net and missing the net," MacKay said when asked how the Conservatives managed to lose the election despite the sullied reputation of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and the deep divisions across the land. 

MacKay, who served as deputy prime minister in Stephen Harper’s government, tweeted that his comments at the Canada Institute in the U.S. capital were about the party’s shortcomings, but come on. Who carried the puck for the CPC during the election campaign? That would be the leader, who’s obviously the same guy who missed the empty net on a breakaway. 

Conservatives are deeply disappointed with the election’s outcome and when a political party loses an election that its members expected to win, the leader is the obvious and natural scapegoat. Conservative circles are rift with rumours of a clandestine cabal organizing and fundraising for a MacKay leadership bid. 

MacKay tweeted that “reports of me organizing (are) false.” Good choice of word, given that the reports are of others organizing on his behalf.  

He’s also said that he wouldn’t rule out a run for the leadership, “but the job’s not open, and I am supporting Andrew.” 

Scheer faces a leadership review at the CPC national convention next April in Toronto, the city that voted overwhelmingly Liberal 10 days ago and, combined with the Conservatives’ weak showing in Quebec, cost them the election. 

MacKay held the Central Nova seat in Parliament from 1997 until 2015 when he did not reoffer. Central Nova, as it happens, is the seat Peter’s father, Elmer MacKay, vacated for Brian Mulroney after Mulroney won the leadership of the old Progressive Conservative Party in 1983.  

Mulroney, who went on to serve eight years as prime minister, had defeated incumbent PC leader and former prime minister Joe Clark for the party leadership. The MacKays and Mulroneys became close then and still are.    

In 1979, Joe Clark’s nine-month old minority government was defeated in the Commons and, after he lost the subsequent election to a rejuvenated Pierre Trudeau in 1980, Clark faced a leadership review. Although he won the support of 66.9 per cent of party members who voted in that review, Clark famously declared that an insufficiently strong mandate, launching a full leadership race. 

Supporters of Mulroney, who’d lost his first leadership bid to Clark, worked behind the scenes in the lead-up to the review to erode Clark’s support. They were initially crestfallen when Clark got the 66.9 per cent vote of approval, and they couldn’t believe their good fortune when Clark said that number wasn’t good enough. 

Like MacKay for Scheer, Mulroney was unwavering in his public support for Clark, even as his operatives fomented discontent with Clark’s leadership. 

Like Clark, Scheer suffers from a charisma deficit, particularly when compared with a Trudeau. And like Mulroney, MacKay is seen by many Conservatives as a more appealing and therefore a more electable alternative to the leader they have. 

There is a sense among some Conservatives that Andrew Scheer’s socially conservative views on issues like abortion and same-sex marriage cost the party support. 

MacKay gave voice to that sentiment in Washington when he said those issues became prevalent in the election. They were, he said, “thrust onto the agenda and hung around Andrew Scheer's neck like a stinking albatross, quite frankly, and he wasn't able to deftly deal with those issues when opportunities arose." 

Conservative politicos who are convinced that Scheer’s views are out-of-step, particularly with the urban voters the party needs to win an election, don’t have far to look for a more socially progressive leader possessing the magnetism that Scheer lacks. 

He’s in Toronto practising law when he’s not in Washington pontificating on the party’s problems. 

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