Andrew Scheer emerged from a marathon caucus meeting Wednesday, declaring that Conservative MPs are united behind his leadership after they declined to give themselves the power to boot the leader out.
Scheer’s leadership will still, however, face a test of confidence among party members at their biannual convention in April in Toronto. He said he believed that’s where the power to potentially oust him should lie.
“The review as to the leadership of the Conservative Party of Canada is and always will be in the hands of our members,” he said to loud applause from the MPs gathered behind him.
“We are a grassroots party.”
Though feisty after holing up with his MPs and senators for seven hours, Scheer repeated many of the same messages that he’d delivered throughout the recent election campaign and in the days afterward.
He said Conservatives will be “laser focused” on four priorities: keeping the country united, restoring ethics and accountability to government, helping Canadians get ahead and getting the energy sector back to work.
And he called on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, whom he accused of dividing the country, to recall Parliament as soon as possible.
“By the time Justin Trudeau even names his cabinet (on Nov. 20), we’ll have been one month removed from election day. That is far too long to wait given the urgent problems we face today.”
The party’s 121 MPs were meeting for the first time since the Oct. 21 election. Scheer said they had a frank discussion about the campaign, which left many senior Conservatives sniping that Scheer had blown an opportunity to defeat a vulnerable Trudeau.
There has been internal pressure for Scheer to make some swift changes to his inner circle as proof he’s taken some of the immediate criticisms — a failure to clearly communicate his ideas, but also a failure to advance any energetic new ones — to heart, but he suggested if any action is taken, it won’t come in the short term.
Scheer intends to embark on a cross-Canada “listening tour,” while former Conservative cabinet minister John Baird will lead an external review of what went wrong and what went right during the campaign.
Among the first order of business for caucus members had been to decide whether to adopt a rule that would allow 20 per cent of their group to trigger a leadership review.
The rule failed to pass, and longtime Alberta MP Chris Warkentin said caucus is united behind the leader.
“Everybody in the room is committed to moving forward, to be unified, to undertake what we were sent here to Ottawa to do, to hold Justin Trudeau to account.”
On their way into the meeting, some MPs said while they support Scheer, they’d vote in favour of the rule on the principle that MPs ought to have the power to oust a leader. Others felt as Scheer would later say — that the power to kick out the leader should belong to members.
On Oct. 21, the Conservatives earned the largest number of votes since their inception in 2004, and successfully elected 26 more MPs than they had in 2015. But while they won slightly more of the popular vote than the Liberals, due to overwhelming majorities in Alberta and Saskatchewan, they lost ground in Quebec and Ontario and emerged with fewer seats: 121 to the Liberals’ 157.
They also lost some high-profile MPs, including deputy leader Lisa Raitt, whose Ontario riding fell to the Liberals. She attended the meeting, calling it a jumping off point to examine why she and others couldn’t get elected, and not the time or place to make rash decisions about the future of the party.
“We don’t have the luxury of time, but we do have the luxury of getting it right,” Raitt said.
Raitt, and others, expressed confidence in Scheer but among some senators from Quebec — who held their own meeting Tuesday night — the feeling was not entirely mutual.
Sen. Claude Carignan said the election was over for the party in Quebec several weeks before the first debate, when Scheer fumbled repeated questions about whether the abortion issue could be reopened under a Conservative government.
Scheer eventually said his government would oppose efforts to legislate restrictions on women’s access to the procedure but never clarified whether he would allow individual backbenchers to propose private member’s bills on the issue.
“All the hesitation that he had in the debate and in the electoral campaign, particularly at the beginning of the campaign, created doubt in the heads of people,” Carignan said. “In Quebec, we lost this campaign the first week.”
Calgary MP Michelle Rempel said Wednesday the party needs to address issues of relevance to the LGBTQ community such as the ongoing ban on blood donations from gay or bisexual men, and conversion therapy, and go beyond the issue of who does or doesn’t march in gay pride parades. Scheer does not.
She said she would consider the question going forward of whether Scheer is the leader who can advance those issues.
“I support marriage equality, I support the rights of the community, they are my rights, we need to be actively championing them,” she said.
“I don’t want this discussion to be around symbolism.”