Andrew Scheer does not sound like a man who thinks he needs to change

Emerging on Wednesday night after a long meeting of the Conservative caucus, Andrew Scheer did not sound like a changed man.

He did not sound like a man who thought there was much of anything about himself that needed to change.

He looked instead like a leader digging in, in hopes of fending off attacks on his position.

He enthused after the closed-door meeting about how well his party had done in October's election. He declared that Conservatives would now form "the largest official Opposition in Canadian history," a claim that is only accurate if one ignores the fact that the House of Commons itself has gotten larger over time.

He did allow that he was "disappointed" the party had not done better and said that an external review would be conducted to assess the campaign.

But he moved on to outline his demands on Justin Trudeau's government and heap scorn on the Liberal result.

No changes on social issues, carbon pricing

The first question had to do with the "social conservative" issues that, in one colourful description, hung around Scheer's neck like a "stinking albatross." Had Scheer decided to change his approach?

"We had a very frank discussion about the importance of making sure that our message gets out clearly," Scheer said. "Our message of inclusion, our message of respect for all Canadians, regardless of their race, religion and sexual orientation. And that's something that we're going to make sure that we absolutely focus on going forward."

Later there was a question about the climate policy that Scheer's Conservatives had proposed. Would Scheer like to change his mind on carbon pricing? He would not.

Justin Tang/Canadian Press
Justin Tang/Canadian Press

"What I heard today was that we needed to do a better job communicating that plan to Canadians," Scheer said of his party's proposal.

Should Scheer be the messenger?

The problem was not, in other words, that the Conservative climate plan was weaker than the other proposals and would result in higher emissions.

It's just that that wasn't communicated better.

Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press
Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press

The Conservatives still have some time to figure out what message they will take into the next election. But not unrelated to that is the question of whether Scheer should be the messenger.

As recently as March, according to polling by Abacus Data, the number of Canadians who had a positive impression of Scheer narrowly outnumbered those who viewed him negatively: 32 per cent to 30 per cent.

Not all Doug Ford's fault

But the closer Canadians looked, the less they liked what they saw.

By the end of the fall campaign, 47 per cent of respondents viewed Scheer negatively, while 31 per cent regarded him positively. In Ontario, his negatives were 51 per cent.

Todd Korol/Reuters
Todd Korol/Reuters

That can't be all Doug Ford's fault. And it happened without the Liberals running a massive television ad campaign against the Conservative leader.

Instead, in late August, the Liberals posted a clip of Scheer explaining his opposition to same-sex marriage in 2005. During that speech in the House, he argued that marriage should be restricted to those who could participate in "natural procreation."

Trouble explaining himself

In the fall of 2019, Scheer couldn't bring himself to reckon with those comments or explain whether or how his views had changed. He also never found an answer for why he wouldn't march in a Pride parade.

On its own, that might not have been enough to sink Scheer's campaign. But then Scheer kept having more trouble explaining himself.

Carlos Osorio/Reuters
Carlos Osorio/Reuters

He needed multiple opportunities to admit he was against abortion. His career as an insurance broker turned out to be somewhat less than claimed. And it turned out he had forgotten to mention that he held American citizenship.

Lined up behind Scheer on Wednesday night were a couple dozen Conservative MPs who dutifully applauded their leader's comments.

41% support

But even voters inclined to support Scheer's party have apparently come away from the fall campaign with a certain lack of enthusiasm for him.

In an Angus Reid Institute poll released on Wednesday, just 41 per cent of Conservative supporters said Scheer should remain leader. By comparison, 85 per cent of Liberal voters supported Justin Trudeau and 87 per cent of NDP voters stood behind Jagmeet Singh.

Carlos Osorio/Reuters
Carlos Osorio/Reuters

The two leaders whose parties lost seats have more than twice as much support among their parties' voters as the one leader whose party actually gained seats.

Perhaps Scheer saw little to be gained this week from satisfying the horde of reporters who wanted to hear him acknowledge his shortcomings.

'First step' toward victory, Scheer says

But Wednesday night's appearance was a reminder that the questions raised during this fall's campaign won't easily go away. In this case, a reporter asked whether Scheer considered homosexuality to be a sin. He did not directly answer.

Scheer was more eager to repeat his contention that this election was a "first step" toward defeating the Trudeau government.

"We know we will be in a good place to finish the job next election," he said.

During the leadership campaign in 2017, the race that was ultimately won by Scheer, Lisa Raitt liked to note that Pierre Trudeau had almost been defeated in 1972, just four years after coming to power on a wave of enthusiasm. The point being that members of the Trudeau family weren't invincible.

History has a warning

History has more or less repeated itself. But history also has a warning.

In the wake of the 1972 election, Robert Stanfield might've thought it was just a matter of time until he became prime minister. But in 1974, two years after Pierre Trudeau's Liberals were knocked down to a minority, the Liberals were restored to a majority.

That result in 1974 depended significantly on Pierre Trudeau deciding he needed to change his own approach.

If Scheer has decided that he doesn't need to change and Conservatives decide that they don't need to change him, the ball will be in Justin Trudeau's court, with the prime minister left to either prove them right or capitalize on the opportunity.