OTTAWA — Renegade Conservative MP Maxime Bernier declared open war on his own party Thursday, abruptly quitting the Tory caucus, announcing nascent plans for a new political movement and deriding his former leader and colleagues as "intellectually and morally corrupt."
With Conservative caucus members gathering in Halifax for a policy convention that was expected to bring the Bernier boil to a head, the controversial Quebec MP stayed behind instead, hosting a snap news conference that proved breathtaking in its defiance.
"I am no longer a Conservative," Bernier declared after reading a scathing diatribe against his party and its leader, Andrew Scheer — the Saskatchewan MP who narrowly edged Bernier out of the leadership job last year in a loss some have suggested he never got over.
"I am now convinced that what we will get if Andrew Scheer becomes prime minister is just a more moderate version of the disastrous Trudeau government," he said.
"I have come to realize over the past year that this party is too intellectually and morally corrupt to be reformed."
The shock of Bernier's rebellion was still reverberating on Parliament Hill when Scheer emerged in Halifax to return fire, accusing his former leadership rival of putting his own "personal profile" ahead of the goals of the party.
"It's obvious that this has been coming for a long time, and in retrospect he probably made this decision to help Justin Trudeau a long time ago," Scheer said.
"I always challenged him to put personal ambition aside and to concentrate on the common ground that all Conservatives can rally around ... I always challenged him to work together as a team, as he claimed that he would."
Bernier said he plans to contact Elections Canada about the path towards creating a new party and will spend the next several weeks travelling the country to meet with people interested in joining his cause.
He accused Scheer of being too focused on polls and focus groups, and afraid of being attacked by people on the left and in the media, to come up with policies that adhere to bedrock Conservative principles. And he rattled off a laundry list of grievances:
— Scheer's support for Trudeau's decision to impose retaliatory tariffs against the United States;
— The Conservative party's ongoing support for supply management, the system that regulates the price of Canadian milk, eggs and poultry and a major sticking point in NAFTA talks;
— The reinstatement of regional ministers to lead development agencies.
Bernier's decision to drop his bombshell with Conservatives gathering in Nova Scotia for a policy convention was no coincidence; he wanted to make a big splash, said one source close to the MP who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Conservative caucus members likely knew something was up, since Bernier had stopped taking their calls in the days leading up to Thursday's announcement, the source said.
Bernier said the last Conservative member he spoke to was Scheer himself — an Aug. 14 conversation that prompted his decision to leave the party, after the Tory leader issued a statement denouncing Bernier's recent tweets about the perils of "too much diversity."
"We had a very polite discussion," Bernier said. "After that discussion, I realized that I don't have any place in that party anymore."
"It does not represent them anymore. And it has nothing of substance to offer Canadians looking for a political alternative."
The news prompted a torrent of Conservative reaction on Twitter and elsewhere, with the prevailing sentiment a show of solidarity with the party and its leader.
"It's clear that Max never accepted the result of the leadership vote and seeks only to divide Conservatives," wrote former prime minister Stephen Harper.
"Today’s Conservative Party is a mainstream, democratic coalition that is ready to govern," added Jason Kenney, leader of Alberta's United Conservative Party.
"One man’s ego must not risk the imperative of defeating the Trudeau government."
Others were less diplomatic.
"You had every opportunity to stand in caucus to share your views and provide input," tweeted B.C. MP Todd Doherty. "When given the opportunity — you stayed silent or blamed it on others around you. You’re Twitter tough ... all bark no bite."
While a number of observers lamented the electoral consequences for the Conservatives of a split on the right of the political spectrum, others were more sanguine about Bernier's departure.
"He has disregarded the caucus and disregarded what Canadian conservatives want, which is a very positive vision for the future of the country," said Ontario MP Tony Clement.
"I think is actually liberating for us, because we have rid ourselves of a giant distraction who was saying things that are not mainstream, so I think this actually rebounds in our favour."
Mia Rabson and Janice Dickson, The Canadian Press