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‘This will be Pierre Poilievre’s party’: Conservatives reckon with a new direction

Click to play video: 'Race heating up for conservative party leadership'
Race heating up for conservative party leadership
With Pierre Poilievre pegged as leading the race, Brandon University political science expert Kelly Saunders discusses the battle for the Conservative Party's top job – Jul 15, 2022

The explosion in Conservative membership sales could significantly shake up the party’s grassroots as well as the long-standing power dynamics between various factions, multiple sources tell Global News.

The biggest beneficiary of that shake-up would likely be Pierre Poilievre, the purported frontrunner to lead the Conservative Party of Canada into the next general election.

“This will be Pierre Poilievre’s party. There’s no question,” said one Conservative source. The source is not affiliated with the Poilievre campaign, but has direct knowledge of the party’s membership list of eligible leadership voters.

Click to play video: 'CPC upholds disqualification of Patrick Brown'
CPC upholds disqualification of Patrick Brown

“Erin (O’Toole) and Andrew (Scheer) never commanded it like he will. And … based on everything he’s said in the past and everything he’s run on in this campaign, the Reform Party is finally taking over.”

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“This will be the most right-wing leader we’ve ever seen in our country’s history,” the source added.

While the party brass refuse to authenticate campaign membership sales numbers, the Poilievre campaign claims to have signed up more than 312,000 memberships – just shy of half the roughly 675,000 eligible voters for the Sept. 10 contest.

Three sources from various leadership campaigns told Global News this week that Poilievre’s numbers include a substantial number of “new” Conservatives – members who have not participated in the federal party’s politics previously.

Click to play video: 'Poilievre marches with convoy protesters on eve of Canada Day celebrations'
Poilievre marches with convoy protesters on eve of Canada Day celebrations

While the ballots have yet to be counted, most insiders – including those from rival campaigns – acknowlege that Poilievre is likely to be the next leader.

According to a new Ipsos poll conducted exclusively for Global News, 49 per cent of Conservative voters view Poilievre favourably, while 29 per cent have a negative impression of the frontrunner. Jean Charest, Poilievre’s nearest rival, came in with 45 per cent of respondents viewing him favourably. But because of a small sample size of 259 Conservative voters interviewed between July 12 and 13, the polling is considered accurate within 6.9 percentage points.

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While Conservative leadership contests tend to be surprising – the smart money was on Maxime Bernier in 2017, and all the connected people knew Peter MacKay would win in 2020 – it’s hard to see a path to victory for anyone but Poilievre, particularly after Patrick Brown’s disqualification.

One wag suggested it’s “Pierre Poilievre’s Conservatives” or the “PPC” – a reference to Bernier’s far-right splinter party.

If that’s to be accepted, the most pressing question is: what kind of Conservative coalition is Poilievre building, and can it be successful – not simply in a Conservative leadership race, but in the next general election?

Poilievre's New Conservative Coalition

Poilievre’s supporters push back against suggestions that they’re courting the far-right convoy crowd. They suggest that media exaggerate the connections, hyperventilating any time Poilievre is embracing a protest that includes fringe figures.

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But the Carleton MP’s messages of “freedom” and opposition to vaccine mandates dovetails with the main tenets of the convoy movement. His long-held philosophy of reducing the reach of government also plays nicely with the anti-authority movement in Canada, which has grown over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic.

While this is not an accident, a source close to the Poilievre campaign suggested that some of his earliest policy pronouncements — pushing provinces to require occupational licensing bodies to rule on immigrants’ applications within 60 days, and offering small loans to immigrants that require additional courses to get professional certification — were meant to inoculate the candidate from allegations of holding a far-right agenda.

But his decision in June to march with James Topp, an anti-vaccine-mandate protester with well-documented ties to Canadian far-right groups, and Poilievre’s open embrace of the convoy movement will not be forgotten whenever the next general election arrives.

“The base has shifted drastically … to the far-right, which opens up the (political) centre, the centre is wide open now,” one source, who agreed to discuss internal party politics on the condition they not be named, said.

“His strategy appears to be let’s get those people who don’t usually vote or don’t vote Conservative, the far-right people that the Conservative party is (not) far-right enough for, move (the party) to that far-right, unlock that, and that will give you that four (or) five points you need to form government.”

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“Maybe this works,” the source added.

Some have pondered a pivot for Poilievre, going hard right during the leadership, then moderating ahead of the next general election, similar to what deposed leader Erin O’Toole tried to do in 2020. But Poilievre’s supporters and detractors don’t believe that’s possible.

“Pierre is Pierre,” said one supporter.

Class warrior

If “Pierre is Pierre,” who are his supporters?

According to a June 4 internal campaign document, Poilievre signed up 118,996 members in Ontario, the electorally all-important province which the Conservatives unsuccessfully tried to make gains in the previous two elections.

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Membership sales cannot be independently verified, and the party has refused to confirm them.

The campaign claims they sold an additional 71,759 memberships in Alberta – the Conservative heartland – 50,709 in British Columbia, and 25,453 in Quebec.

Anthony Koch, a spokesperson for the Poilievre campaign, said they have sold at least 100 memberships in all 338 ridings, a key metric in the party’s points-based, riding-weighted leadership race.

Click to play video: 'Charest believes he is the consensus Conservative leadership candidate'
Charest believes he is the consensus Conservative leadership candidate

The Poilievre campaign declined to comment for this article. But a source close to the campaign said that three themes – “free speech,” opposition to vaccine mandates, and fiscal restraint – have drawn the disparate crowd of Poilievre supporters to his candidacy.

“There’s people that signed up for us that are anti-COVID mandates? Yeah, I think that’s safe to say,” said another Poilievre campaign source, who agreed to discuss strategy on the condition they not be named.

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“It’s not the only issue, but it definitely is an issue that (has) galvanized across party lines, moreso than any issue I’ve ever seen. There’s a reason why, you know, NDP supporters in Timmins (Ontario) are coming to a Pierre Poilievre rally and signing up to be Conservative Party of Canada members.”

COVID and the political fallout of public health measures has “changed the dynamics” for conservative politics, the source said. White-collar workers could work at home in relative safety. Blue-collar workers were closer to the front lines.

“(Politics) has become a real class structure as opposed to a left/right dynamic,” the source said.

A libertarian bent

The trick for Poilievre will be convincing those blue-collar voters – a demographic coveted by Erin O’Toole during his failed 2021 election bid – that the Conservatives are their political home.

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A senior Poilievre campaign source said they have given little thought to what comes after the vote on September 10. Despite widespread belief that the campaign has already won, those at the helm insist they’re not taking it for granted.

The source added that they don’t believe anyone has a real handle on who the new 675,000-plus member Conservative Party of Canada are, and won’t until September 11 when the ballots are counted and the granular analysis is done.

But “the vast, vast majority” of Poilievre’s membership sales were to people who are new to partisan politics, the source said.

“If they voted, I bet the only other time they voted was for Trudeau in 2015 because they wanted to legalize pot,” the source said.

“It’s a libertarian bent to people that you see at the events.”

Those close to Poilievre believe that his economic message – reining in government spending, addressing inflation and lowering taxes – will continue to resonate with the new Conservative base, just like the old one.

But at this point, campaign officials acknowledge, it’s guesswork. Few have a solid grasp on who these new members are, and how they will influence or participate in the party’s grassroots politics.

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For the Poilievre campaign, these are questions for September 11.

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