The Conservatives have a new leader, but not the bigger tent they need: Hébert

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Connect the dots that lead to Andrew Scheer’s narrow Conservative leadership victory and what you have is a triumph of retail politics over big ideas.

Stephen Harper’s Conservatives lived and eventually died on the battlefield of boutique policies tailored to specific segments of the electorate. Those same dynamics ultimately determined the outcome of the former prime minister’s succession on Saturday.

In the end, two unrelated but identifiable groups tipped the balance in Scheer’s favour: the party’s social conservative wing and a well-organized dairy farmers’ lobby.

The religious right had not one but two standard-bearers in the leadership line-up and both Pierre Lemieux and Brad Trost, despite not having served in any of Harper’s cabinet, finished ahead of five former Conservative ministers. Together they won 15 per cent of the vote on the first ballot.

Scheer did not court the religious right over the course of his leadership campaign, but on issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage, he has voted along social conservative lines for as long as he has been an MP. The bulk of Lemieux and Trost’s support ended up in his column on the last ballot.

Bernier’s leadership platform read like a hit list of sacred cows. The Canada Health Act that allows the federal government to have a say in the provincial management of Medicare was one of them.

But it was his commitment to end the supply management system in the dairy and poultry industries that attracted the most attention. It earned him a lot of favourable editorial coverage and substantial support in some regions of Western Canada. On Saturday Bernier came first in Alberta and Manitoba. But it also blunted his edge in his home-province.

Bernier’s strategists had expected a Quebec juggernaut to lift him over the finish line. It never materialized. He won Quebec but not without a fight. He collected 55 per cent of the province’s support overall. In his own Beauce riding, a seat he has carried with more than 60 per cent of the vote in good and bad Conservative times, Bernier lost to Scheer and his dairy industry allies.

And in Atlantic Canada where governments are major players in the economy, his libertarian ideology did not sell well.

It took thirteen ballots for victory to slip from Bernier’s grasp, but the strong mandate he would have needed to put his policy stamp on the party was long gone by the time he conceded defeat to Scheer.

Had he woken up on Sunday morning with a mandate as fragile as that handed Scheer, Bernier would have lacked the legitimacy to sell a hostile caucus and a dubious party on his controversial signature policies.

It was not just Bernier’s big ideas that bit the dust on Saturday.

Kellie Leitch believed she was on to something when she set out to talk the party into branding itself as a champion of Canadian identity. She wore her proposal of a values-test on would-be immigrants like a badge of honour and contended that it put her on the right side of public opinion and in the top leadership tier. Barely seven per cent of the membership supported that contention. For all intents and purposes, she emerges from this campaign a spent political force.

Michael Chong tried to talk his party into renouncing its anti-carbon pricing mantra. He pleaded with the Conservatives to reconnect with the majority of voters — in particular among the younger cohort — who support a more proactive climate change strategy. About one in ten Conservatives followed his lead.

Some of Scheer’s first post-victory fighting words were aimed at Justin Trudeau’s carbon pricing scheme. Not only would the new Conservative leader reverse it, he contends that Canadians should not pay the GST on home-heating bills. If anything, the leadership campaign has cast in stone the Conservatives’ determination to continue to take a pass on the defining environmental issue of the era.

The influence of the religious right within the Conservative family is not matched by an equivalent impact in the ballot box. Over the years, flirting with restrictions on abortion and the party’s resistance to same-sex marriage have cost the party more votes than they have attracted.

As for the dairy farmers who mobilized against Bernier, they are at best fair weather friends who cannot be counted on to automatically sign up for the larger 2019 Conservative battle against supply-management friendly parties like the Bloc, the NDP and the Liberals.

Almost two years after their 2015 defeat, the Conservatives have a permanent leader, but not the bigger tent they need if they are to beat the Liberals in less than two years. On that score, Scheer’s victory is even less impressive than its modest size suggests.

Chantal Hébert is a national affairs writer. Her column appears Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday.