Sorting out the federal Conservative leadership competition, with its 14 candidates, is bit like trying to unscramble an omelet. It would be simpler if, instead of a secret, preferential ballot weighted to give each of the 338 ridings an equal number of votes, the party had opted for an old-style brokered convention.
With a brokered convention, everyone could see which candidates had no hope and which ones had a chance, provided they could make a deal to grab delegates from one or more of the also-rans. Sometimes these deals were consummated openly on the convention floor; sometimes they were negotiated clandestinely in hotel rooms or under the stands of the arena.
These brokered conventions were not perfect manifestations of democracy – let’s leave it at that – but they were exciting; and they did produce such party leaders as Robert Stanfield, Pierre Trudeau, Joe Clark and Brian Mulroney.
If the old system were in use, it would be easier to assess the relative strengths of this year’s candidates, and to paint possible scenarios. As it is, with a preferential ballot, the second and third choices are almost as important as first choices, but they are locked in before the first-choice ballots are counted.
With that caveat, let’s see how the race might shape up under the old arrangements.
There are three major candidates on the right – Kellie Leitch, Maxime Bernier and Kevin O’Leary. Leitch has no realistic hope. Her hard-line stance on immigration alienates Conservatives who don’t share her passion to make Canada white again. Quebec’s Bernier is more of a libertarian than a conservative; the smaller the government, the better in his view. O’Leary is a Trump-style disrupter; he understands little about the ways of government and cares less.
In the view of observers who claim to be able to read the race, O’Leary and Bernier are the front-runners. That’s based on claims of memberships sold (probably inflated) and endorsements by caucus members and other party notables (who may not be able to deliver more than their own vote).
In an old-style delegated convention, a merger of the two leading right-wingers would seem inevitable. If the unilingual O’Leary were on top, he could make Bernier his Quebec lieutenant. But the reverse would not likely work. Ego being ego, it’s hard to imagine O’Leary sticking around to play second fiddle to Maxime Bernier.
Moving slightly to the left, there is a candidate in the mid-right. He’s Andrew Scheer, from Saskatchewan, the former speaker of the Commons. A social conservative who campaigns toward the middle of the spectrum, he is seen as the preferred choice of former leader Stephen Harper. Until last week, Scheer led all other candidates in caucus endorsements. With a strong regional base on the prairies, he could win it all, or be a king-maker.
There are no Red Tories in this race, but there is a group of three who could fairly describe themselves as progressives. All from central Ontario and all former cabinet ministers, they are: Erin O’Toole, Lisa Raitt and Michael Chong.
Of the three, O’Toole seems to have some momentum. He took the lead in caucus endorsements from Scheer last week, has some strength in the Maritimes, and is generally well regarded in the progressive wing (or rump) of the party that Harper created. A pedestrian stump performer, he is respected but excites little enthusiasm.
Similarly, Lisa Raitt’s campaign generates more goodwill than excitement. She seems to have lost momentum in recent weeks to O’Toole, which is where her second-choice ballots may go. They would seem to be natural allies.
That leaves Michael Chong. Admired for his independence – he resigned from the Harper cabinet on a matter of principle (a rare thing these days) – he is almost too close to being a Red Tory to be able to command enough support for himself.
A final point: the rise of Donald Trump has altered the dynamic in the Conservative party – to the advantage of Kevin O’Leary.