When “Mr. Wonderful” left the stage so abruptly last week, he sucked all the air out of the Conservative leadership drama.
Kevin O’Leary’s candidacy had thrilled and distressed Conservatives in roughly equal proportions. Every conversation about the party leadership turned inevitably to the star of Dragons’ Den and Shark Tank.
He was the ultimate outsider –a financier and television performer with an oversized ego – who had never held public office, who seemed blissfully ignorant of the ways of government, who (although born in Montreal) could not speak more than a few words of French, and who spent as little time as possible in Canada.
Yet to his followers, he was the real goods in a bloated field of 14 otherwise uninspiring contenders. They didn’t care that he was a political naif. They saw him as the one candidate who could excite the electorate sufficiently to achieve the only goal that matters – the defeat of Justin Trudeau’s Liberals in 2019.
“The Donald” had done it in the United States last year. Why couldn’t Mr. Wonderful, as he styles himself, do the same in Canada?
The preferential ballot that the Conservatives are using for their May 27 vote reduces predictions to guesswork. But O’Leary appeared to be the front-runner when he withdrew last week and endorsed the opponent who appeared to be a close second, Maxime Bernier, a former cabinet minister from rural Quebec who calls himself a “reasonable libertarian” (whatever that may be).
I suspect O’Leary was correct in his calculation – that while he might be able the win the leadership, his abject lack of support in French Canada would doom his chances of unseating Trudeau and the Liberals in a general election. And O’Leary, the showman and opportunist, had no intention of suffering in opposition.
As we bid farewell to Mr. Wonderful, what is left to look at? Not much, I fear. Last Wednesday’s so-called debate proved little more than an exchange of familiar talking points among the 13 survivors.
But someone has to win. Who will it be? Starting from the right – and I am excluding Kellie Leitch on the ground that she is too radical for sensible Conservatives – we have Bernier. He’s 54, bilingual, a lawyer, MP for Beauce, and former minister of Foreign Affairs and of Industry. He wants to shrink government. He’s opposed to subsidies for business and equalization payments for provinces. He wants to get Ottawa out of health care. A climate change skeptic, he would scrap a federal carbon tax.
Most commentators think the endorsement of O’Leary, who sold about 35,000 party memberships, will put Bernier over the top. But that’s 35,000 out of 259,000 Tories who are eligible to send in ballots. There’s absolutely no guarantee that most of the 35,000 will go to Bernier, or will even bother to vote in the absence of O’Leary.
If not Bernier, who?
Next, Andrew Scheer, 38 this month, a career politician, MP for Regina-Qu’Appelle, and former speaker of the Commons. He’s adequate in French and has strong Prairie support. If the Conservatives think that a reincarnation of Stephen Harper is the way to go, Scheer is their candidate – if you can imagine a Harper who smiles a lot. Scheer may have some warmth, but he is a plodding speech-maker. His platform could have been written by Harper. A fiscal Conservative, Scheer edges toward the centre on social issues. He opposes the legalization of marijuana.
Every party has a mushy middle, and the Conservatives have two Ontario candidates in that category. They are: Erin O’Toole, 44, MP for Durham, a soldier and lawyer, with just eight months’ experience in cabinet (in Veterans Affairs), good caucus support and weak French; and Lisa Raitt, 49 this coming Sunday, MP for Milton, a lawyer and former president of the Toronto Port Authority, experienced as minister of Transport, Labour and Natural Resources, she has some fire to her but rudimentary French.
Most of the rest of the 13 could do the party a favour by getting out of the way.