They say history doesn’t repeat itself, but it makes a pretty good stab at it when it comes to the federal Conservative party and its leadership.
In 1966, 13 years before Andrew Scheer was born, John Diefenbaker was humiliated and dumped from the leadership by a party that had been persuaded he could not lead it back to power – a fate that Scheer is struggling to avoid today.
Diefenbaker had won a massive majority government in 1958, only to be reduced to a minority in 1962. That government soon fell, and the Conservatives lost the election of 1963 to Lester Pearson’s Liberals. Unrest over Diefenbaker’s leadership grew into rebellion after he lost a second election to Pearson in 1965.
At the party’s national convention in 1966, the rebels accomplished three things: they secured the re-election of Dalton Camp, the leader of the anti-Diefenbaker faction, as the party’s national president; they won approval for a controversial amendment to the party constitution to require a secret-ballot vote on the leadership at the first convention after each general election; and they passed a motion that a leadership convention be held in 1967.
That 1966 meeting ranks among the most dramatic in Canadian political history. Emotions reached the breaking point. One night, Jack Horner, an Alberta MP and one of Diefenbaker’s fiercest supporters, took a swing at Ontario’s Attorney General Roy McMurtry, a Camp supporter, in the Chateau Laurier Hotel. McMurtry, an old football player, knocked him out with one punch.
(When dust finally settled and Robert Stanfield was installed as Conservative leader, Horner crossed the floor to the Liberals and became, briefly, a cabinet minister. McMurtry eventually became chief justice of Ontario.)
The principle enunciated by Dalton Camp – that members of a political party have two complementary rights, to choose a leader and to decide when to replace the leader – is widely accepted these days, and leadership review process established at the 1966 meeting is the hurdle Andrew Scheer faces today. His leadership will be put to a vote at the party convention next April, assuming he lasts that long.
His ordeal is producing none of the high emotion of Diefenbaker’s in 1966. Dief was a polarizing figure. Scheer generates neither fierce hostility nor intense loyalty. Regret seems to be the reigning emotion among Conservatives – regret that they did not choose someone else when they picked Scheer to lead them in 2017, regret that he could not run a better election campaign this year, and regret that he is still unable to define himself and his beliefs in terms that the public can understand and the party can embrace.
He is caught in a withering crossfire. From disgruntled Conservatives in Quebec. From social conservatives distressed by the leader’s failure to endorse their opposition to abortion and gay rights. From moderates, especially in Ontario, who see Scheer as waffling on both those issues. And from members of former leader Stephen Harper’s campaign organization, including his campaign director, Jenni Byrne, and his communications director, Kory Teneycke, who worked for Maxime Bernier’s Conservative leadership bid. Teneycke and others are operating a new website, Conservative Victory, which is trying to raise money and support to persuade Scheer to resign before the April convention.
While former Harper cabinet minister John Baird is canvassing party members, at Scheer’s behest, there is scant evidence of any deep support at the grass-roots level. The parliamentary caucus is still with him, waiting to see how he performs when Parliament returns. According to one analysis, however, Scheer was not the first choice of a majority of his MPs. How much commitment he can expect from them is an open question.
All four party leaders have something to prove once Parliament opens on Thursday. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has to prove he can transition from celebrity politics to consensus leadership in a minority Parliament. Jagmeet Singh has to demonstrate he has what it takes to lift the NDP above its seat losses in the election. Yves-François Blanchet has to show that the Bloc Québécois has really been reborn. And Andrew Scheer has to prove to himself that he can survive, if only until April.