Andrew Scheer is young for a politician whose biggest moments in politics are now behind him. At 41, Scheer’s departure as Conservative leader doesn’t just reflect a passing of the torch to the next man or woman — it is also a turning point for the Conservative Party of Canada.
Scheer’s tenure caps an era in which voters from Western Canada became the central force in the party. More than a quarter century ago, the majority of Canadian conservatives abandoned the traditional Progressive Conservative party in favour of Preston Manning’s Reform Party. The PCs carried on, but were only a shell of the pan-Canadian powerhouse that existed under Brian Mulroney.
Most Conservatives switched to Manning in 1993. In the election that year, the Reform Party went from one seat to 52. More remarkable than that, the PCs, led by Kim Campbell, went from 156 to two.
The rupture in Conservative politics that tilted the party westward would not be temporary. The Conservative movement would be led, in order, by Alberta’s Manning, British Columbia’s Stockwell Day, Alberta’s Stephen Harper and Saskatchewan’s Andrew Scheer — all westerners who maintained the party’s leadership in the west. Until now.
So when Scheer stepped down, it was a surprise when western Conservatives stepped back entirely from the party’s leadership race. No Rona Ambrose. No Jason Kenney. No James Moore. Not even a single western MP to carry the flag.
The final four candidates to be the new leader are based in Ontario, though Peter MacKay, of course, will always be a Nova Scotian in the political world.
It does not change the make up of the party and its members — in 2019 more than half the Conservative seats were won in the four western provinces, and it was western Conservatives who were boiling mad about the results, even reviving talk of western separation. But symbolically it is a seismic shift in leadership from west to east.
“The new leader is going to come from central or eastern Canada,” said long-time Conservative commentator Tim Powers on the eve of the party’s leadership vote. “The challenge for that new leader — not having that western connection — will be to keep the west welded in. So, end of an era? Absolutely.”
The party was ever so close to swinging back to an eastern orientation during its leadership race in 2017. There were 14 candidates, eliminated one by one on ranked ballots. Quebec’s Maxime Bernier led for 12 rounds. Scheer won it in the 13th — 51 per cent to 49 per cent.
But for that narrow margin, one can only imagine how different federal politics would have been these last three years. Scheer’s victory reflected the party membership’s strength was still in the west, and the membership’s strong social conservative preference for one of their own.
It was an unlikely rise to the top for Andrew Scheer. He came to Ottawa as a rookie MP just turned 25 in 2004. He was one of the youngest ever elected. Coincidentally, the man he beat in that election was the longest-serving MP, New Democrat Lorne Nystrom, who was actually the youngest MP ever elected at the time, as a 22 year old in 1968.
Representing the mostly rural Regina-Qu’Appelle riding, Scheer did not arrive on Parliament Hill making a lot of noise. But in his second year he did put down a clear marker that immediately defined his politics and his beliefs.
Scheer declared his opposition to same-sex marriage. In a carefully written statement, he said, “There is nothing more important to society than the raising of children, for its very survival requires it. Homosexual unions are by nature contradictory to this.” He added, “As they cannot commit the natural procreation of children, they cannot therefore be married.”
It sounds way out-of-step now, but that was in 2005, and the government was about to take an historic vote on same-sex marriage. Scheer was not alone at a time when many MPs from an earlier generation — Conservatives and Liberals — were not comfortable extending marriage rights to gays. But the vote was held, marriage equality was passed, and Scheer’s views were largely forgotten.
Scheer was soft-spoken, and his low-key manner seemed well suited to his first big promotion in Ottawa — becoming deputy speaker of the House of Commons in 2008.
A few years later he was chosen by his Parliamentary colleagues — most of whom were part of Stephen Harper’s majority government — to be the Speaker of House, the youngest ever. This most prestigious position, and he had just turned 32.
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After the Conservative defeat in 2015, Harper resigned as party leader and after a bit of time, Scheer decided to run for the top job. He was not the favourite. He only received 22 per cent of the vote on the first leadership ballot.
But not unlike another young Conservative — Joe Clark 41 years earlier — Scheer quietly and gradually came from behind at the party’s convention to catch the front runner in the final count and seized leadership.
By all accounts, the party’s staunch social-conservative supporters helped push him over the top. Scheer’s challenge would be to broaden his appeal in the party and beyond. When pressed by reporters, he said he would look for “the common ground between the different kinds of conservatives.” And then he added, “I’m not going to put myself in a binary box that you might want to put me in.”
When election time came, the Conservatives seemed well positioned to defeat Justin Trudeau’s Liberals, following the SNC-Lavalin controversy that cost Trudeau two cabinet ministers, including his Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould. The mild-mannered Scheer had by now adopted a sharper edge to his politicking. In one debate, Scheer stood face to face with Trudeau and dressed him down over his dealings with Wilson-Raybould: “We know those were all lies. You failed to tell the truth.”
What was seen by Scheer as a clear case of meddling in a criminal prosecution to help a Quebec-based company, (indeed, Trudeau was found to have violated ethics rules) was viewed by many in Quebec as, well, helping a Quebec-based company. Period.
Scheer’s apparent antipathy toward Trudeau may have matched the deep-seeded feelings of many voters on the Prairies. But not so much in Montreal, or Toronto for that matter. Similarly, many conservative voters were comfortable with Scheer’s genuine social conservatism. But that was less likely to sway votes in big urban centres.
Two months before the election, the Liberals released that old tape of Scheer in the House of Commons talking about his aversion to “homosexual unions”.
He was asked about it and Scheer tried to adopt the Stephen Harper response that the issue had been resolved and the party had moved on. It worked for Harper. But Scheer was pressed on whether his own personal feelings had evolved. He just couldn’t or wouldn’t answer that. For a social conservative it’s not a surprise, perhaps, but in so many ways Scheer was not in sync with progressive voters, and for a leader younger than Trudeau himself, he didn’t sound all that young.
The election seemed to bear that out. Scheer’s leadership helped the party win back several larger, rural ridings across the country, and what he stood for created a Conservative tsunami in Alberta and Saskatchewan. But he did not win over young voters, and didn’t seem in step with the times in urban Canada or, decisively, in suburban Toronto, the most critical swing voting district in the country.
Scheer piled up more votes overall, but running up the score in Conservative strongholds still left him 35 seats behind Trudeau’s Liberals on election night. It was a letdown for the party, and it is the leader who has to answer for that.
“He was a compromise choice. He did the best he could,” said Powers, who cast his mind back to Scheer winning the leadership. “Andrew Scheer was the back-up quarterback who got brought into the game and just didn’t know how to complete passes.”
There are two schools of thought about Scheer’s one and only campaign as leader. The first is that he fell short of expectations, failing to knock out Justin Trudeau when the Liberal leader was staggering — from ethical lapses to the shocking blackface revelations. The charitable view is he grew the Conservative caucus and left the next leader with a solid springboard to the future.
Powers says he wouldn’t describe Scheer as leaving a legacy.
“He was the accidental leader who accidentally held the Liberals to a minority and at the same time accidentally leaves the Conservatives with a good base from which to grow as the next election approaches.”
At this stage, having been knocked off the mountain top, most political leaders would move on — to retirement or to something new. But I find myself circling back to Joe Clark and the similar career arcs for the two men.
Obviously Clark served as prime minister and Scheer will not have that honour. But they were two accidental leaders, neither particularly charismatic, who rose surprisingly quickly to the top of the Conservative pyramid before being forced out while still young men in their early 40s. What we know about Clark is that he would have a second act. He stayed in politics and became the respected minister of foreign affairs in the government of his successor, Brian Mulroney.
Scheer too is staying on as an MP and he has indicated he’ll run again in 2023. Or earlier if the government falls. There’s certainly time in his political future for the Conservatives to regain power. And so, will Andrew Scheer, like Joe Clark, have a second act?
Eric Sorensen is a senior journalist for Global News based in Toronto. Earlier, he worked on Parliament Hill covering Prime Ministers Mulroney, Chretien, Martin and Harper.