Since he lost the federal election last month, Andrew Scheer has tried but mostly failed to make the case that his maiden campaign as leader has resulted, if not in the hoped-for return to power, at least in a moral victory.
To sustain his thesis, Scheer has pointed to the party’s first place in the popular vote, the larger caucus he is about to bring in the House of Commons and the loss by the Liberals of their majority.
He has cast the result as the first of a two-step return to government. After all, less than 24 months elapsed between Stephen Harper’s initial defeat in 2004 and the start of a Conservative decade in government.
Whether any of those arguments will allow Scheer to avoid the many knives headed for his back since election night is very much an open question.
In almost every significant way, he is in a much weaker position than Harper was in the aftermath of the 2004 defeat. Notwithstanding the larger caucus that will be gathering for the first time this week, so is the Conservative party.
When he lost his first campaign to Paul Martin, Harper had just co-engineered the reunification of the conservative movement under a single party.
He had won two successive leadership elections on the first ballot.
Only months before he led the reunited Conservatives in his first campaign, Harper had secured the support of 69 per cent of those who participated in that party’s leadership vote.
It would have been next to impossible to find a high-profile Conservative to challenge Harper’s leadership, let alone to do so successfully.
By comparison, Scheer, who became leader on a 13th ballot, was not the first choice of many of those who eventually helped him defeat Maxime Bernier.
They saw Scheer as a caretaker for the party during its spell in opposition rather than the person most likely to bring them back to power.
Harper’s A-team in cabinet sat out the contest.
Some of those who took a pass back then were said to be biding their time, in the expectation that it would take more than one election for voter fatigue with the Liberals to really set in.
The survival of any major political leader is always contingent, if not on victory, at least on a result that puts the party on a winning track.
Scheer’s results point in the opposite direction.
In 2004, Harper’s 99 seats amounted to the best Conservative score since Brian Mulroney won the 1988 free trade election.
But it was not so much the seat total that made the Conservative result encouraging as it was the location of those gains.
In Ontario, where the Canadian Alliance had won just two seats in 2000, the Harper-led Conservatives took 24. That number suggested the reunited party and its leader were both viable options in the electoral market of central Canada.
Scheer’s results suggest otherwise.
On his watch, the Conservatives finished with a smaller share of the popular vote in Canada’s largest province than they got in their 2015 defeat.
And in Quebec, where Harper had become deeply unpopular by the time of his last campaign, Scheer fared as poorly as his predecessor.
The Conservatives lost to the Liberals — decisively, in many cases — in most of the large urban areas outside of the Prairies, including Toronto and Montreal.
In the big picture, Scheer’s post-election Conservative party is more dependent on the support of the Prairie provinces than the Reform party used to be.
In Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta, the Conservatives won a larger share of the popular vote last month than Preston Manning’s Reform party did in its final appearance on the federal ballot in 1997.
Going forward, that regional strength stands to sap the party’s growth nationally.
That’s because much of the glue that Scheer and his team used to bind the Conservative base in the Prairies is the signature commitment to turn back the clock on the federal fight against climate change and to move forward on pipelines.
Whether Scheer remains as leader or not, it will be hard for the federal Conservatives to find their way back to the environmental mainstream without alienating their base, not to mention the region’s vocal premiers. But if they stay the course, their Prairie fortress could turn into an electoral jail.
For today’s Conservatives, climate change could become the same kind of political albatross that constitutional reconciliation became for Brian Mulroney’s Tories.
After the Meech Lake Accord failed in 1990, they were damned in Quebec if they stopped pursuing the issue, but damned in much of the rest of the country if they did not.
A big difference is that while the constitution was eventually chased off the radar by other pressing issues, climate change is set to hold pride of place for years to come.