Bittersweet Conservative post-election gathering set for Ottawa Wednesday

OTTAWA — Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer knows more Latin than most.

And at this week's first Conservative caucus meeting following the Oct. 21 election, many will be listening for how far Scheer goes in his opening remarks to incorporate two words many people do know: mea culpa — it is my fault.

It will be a bittersweet gathering for the newly-elected, returning and retiring Conservative MPs gathering Wednesday in Ottawa.

Scheer is presiding over 26 more MPs than he had when he took over leadership of the party in 2017. The Conservatives also nabbed a historic victory in the popular vote, securing the most support they've had since the party came into being in 2004.

Michelle Rempel, a two-term MP from Calgary, now headed into her third Parliament, said she expects the party's victories to be celebrated. But she also expects an honest look at what didn't happen.

"We were also fighting a government that went through multiple corruption scandals, really, I think, lost the moral authority to govern and we didn't win," she said.

"I also expect while we say look, here are (26) new colleagues, this is great, some introspection on why that didn't happen and a strong action plan going forward, or a proposal for an action plan that welcomes and accepts feedback from a diversity of voices."

Frustration with the results is a common theme among Conservatives, but when it comes to what precisely was the problem, there's no consensus.

There are those who believe the campaign itself was poorly executed, without enough policy to motivate voters.

A desire for an in-depth discussion of those options was evident Tuesday, when one of the party's former advertising gurus threw out on social media the idea of launching a new podcast dedicated solely to chewing over conservative ideas. It  received immediate support from a range of Conservative thinkers and leaders, including former chiefs of staffs and strategists.

But there are those upset with Scheer, specifically his personal views on abortion and same-sex marriage, which are rooted — like his knowledge and love of Latin — in his devout Catholic faith.

There is mounting irritation that he won't clarify to what extent — if at all — his opinion has evolved since he spoke out forcefully against same-sex marriage when it was legalized nearly 15 years ago.

Several former spokespeople for the last Conservative prime minister, Stephen Harper, have spoken publicly on that theme in the last week, calling it a "fatal" move on the part of Scheer. He has also attracted criticism from grassroots party members who were instrumental in getting language against same-sex marriage dropped from the party's handbook.

There is no question that Scheer's socially-conservative views sunk his ability to win in Quebec, said Yves Levesque, a popular former mayor in Trois Rivieres, who was running to represent the riding for the Tories. 

At the outset of the campaign, Levesque was thought to be a shoo-in. At the end of the first French language debate, where Scheer was pummelled mercilessly over what his personal views were, the mood on the ground in Quebec shifted and the Tories never regained support, Levesque said.

That message was echoed by Conservative senators who met Tuesday night to choose a new Tory leader in the upper house.

Sen. Jean-Guy Dagenais said the first French debate was "catastrophic" for the Conservatives in Quebec. He repeated his view that the party can't win in his province as long as Scheer remains the leader.

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."

Carignan didn't rule out Scheer remaining as leader, but he said without changes to his team, his approach to abortion and his message in the pivotal battlegrounds of Quebec and Ontario, it will remain difficult for the party to win under Scheer's continued leadership.

Sen. David Tkachuk, who represents Scheer's home province of Saskatchewan, bristled at suggestions the leader should go.

"What about Mr. Trudeau? Should he remain leader of the Liberal party? He lost the majority government, he lost the popular vote, he's hated in two parts of the country," Tkachuk said.

"Mr. Scheer's the leader of the party and he's going to remain the leader of the party until the party says otherwise."

Still, the first sign of whether Scheer's elected team feels the same way will come Wednesday.

After his speech, caucus will get down to the first piece of business: deciding whether or not they wish to adopt what are colloquially known as the Chong rules. There are four of them, introduced as part of a parliamentary reform act spurred on by Conservative MP Michael Chong, designed to give MPs greater power over how their parliamentary groups operate. 

One of them deals with giving MPs the power to oust their leader. If caucus adopts the rule, a leadership review could be triggered by a written request submitted to the caucus chair signed by 20 per cent of the MPs. After that, a caucus vote would take place on removing the leader, which would require a majority of votes.

But the Conservatives also have a convention in April, where a leadership review is mandated as part of the party's constitution.

Rempel said, in her view, it is the full membership of the party, not just MPs, who ought to have a say.

"I am one vote out of how many thousands of members across the country," she said.

"It's important to have the leadership review, I think he has to go through it and he's got six months to show Canadians and our members ahead of the vote what his vision is."

While senators are members of the Conservative caucus, the Chong rules do not give them a vote on whether caucus should be empowered to trigger a leadership review.

Nevertheless, Dagenais predicted that all caucus members will agree to let party members decide Scheer's fate in April.

— with files from Joan Bryden.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published on Nov. 5, 2019.

Stephanie Levitz, The Canadian Press