Conservatives say these are the 4 biggest challenges Pierre Poillievre will face
OTTAWA – In high school, he was selling Reform Party memberships.
At university he was a finalist in an essay competition about what he would do as Prime Minister.
At 25, he won a seat in Ottawa for the federal Conservatives, and 20 years later, he’s still an MP after serving as a cabinet minister along the way, getting married and now a father of two.
And on Saturday, 43-year-old Pierre Poillievre became the leader of the federal Conservative Party and that of the official opposition.
For Poilievre, it’s just a stepping stone on the way to a bigger goal: to be Canada’s prime minister, which was how he framed a leadership race he dominated from the start.
But to get there, he will have to deal with a series of challenges.
The Star polled longtime party operatives, Poilievre’s inner circle and current and former MPs to get their views on the job ahead.
Here’s a look at the areas to pay attention to:
Former party leader Erin O’Toole was kicked out of office by her own MPs just 18 months after winning the leadership.
It was an internal civil war that had its roots in the way O’Toole campaigned for the leadership and the turning point he made afterwards as he led the party into the 2021 election.
But during a recent conversation with the Star, O’Toole also blamed the pandemic.
The group was never able to find a channel in the virtual world that was the pandemic parliament, and the very topics that divided the country — questions and doubts about vaccines, vaccine mandates and the deadlocks between them — also divided the group.
In the 2021 election, the party lost seats and the support of some MPs in traditionally stable positions collapsed as attention to the populist People’s Party of Canada increased, a move they attributed to O’Toole’s too moderate approach.
It all came to a point where even those who had previously been strong supporters of O’Toole turned around and voted for his removal. He was deposed on 2 Feb.
Into the fray came interim leader Candace Bergen, a popular MP with Reform Party roots whose main focus was to reunite the group and get everyone back on the same page.
The mood under her watch immediately lightened, but that didn’t mean the previous tension had evaporated.
To some extent, some will now be re-ignited by the leadership race.
Although Poilievre had the support of the majority of the party’s deputies, there is still a group that supported Jean Charest, demonized at every turn by Poilievre during the race. And some of those MPs in turn denounced Poilievre.
Whether the two retreats can co-exist, and especially since much of Charest’s support is in Quebec, will be something both sides have to figure out.
Poilievre will also have to decide which elected MPs will now be given many top opposition posts and deal with the hurt feelings of those still cornered.
Among those to watch for: where he places leadership rivals Leslyn Lewis and Scott Aitchison, the only other MPs in the race.
Lewis, in particular, is a conundrum, say insiders.
She made history in 2020 as the first black woman to run for party leadership and finished a strong third despite entering as a relative unknown.
Part of this success was directly related to her socially conservative supporters. Most ended up supporting O’Toole.
But instead of putting her on the O’Toole front bench as a political reward for her achievements – and a curtsy to that wing of the party – she said she was removed because of her refusal to disclose her vaccination status.
That decision angered her social conservative base, and they rallied behind her this time around, claiming to have sold thousands of memberships in her name.
But in this campaign, she has tried to broaden her base beyond party members who support her anti-abortion stance.
She made a statement that drew criticism for comparing the atrocities of the Holocaust to vaccines against COVID-19. She suggested that global bodies like the World Health Organization and the World Economic Forum were trying to take away Canada’s sovereignty and spread a conspiracy theory that there was a condition called “Sudden Adult Death Syndrome” linked to vaccines. There is no such condition.
HERE ABOUT HER RESULTS AND WHAT IS BEING SAID ABOUT HER POSITIONS AND FRONT ROW POTENTIAL AS A RESULT.
The discipline of factional messages is essential not only for team building but also to prevent the leader from spending time responding to the comments of his own MPs rather than the message they want to articulate, people familiar with the matter say.
Poilievre is not personally immune to these attacks. He also waded into conspiracies over the World Economic Forum, saying he would bar any of his ministers from attending.
But the extent to which he continues to discuss it — or give prominence to his MPs who hold controversial views — will be a quiver in the quiver of his critics, who already say the federal Conservatives are giving too much oxygen to dangerous ideas.
The official office of the opposition leader
A knock on former leader Andrew Scheer when he took over the party in 2017 was that he had not given enough thought to the team he would put in the office of official opposition leader, and that team came together only piecemeal.
Poilievre’s team had been planning the transition before the victory, a job complicated by the death of Queen Elizabeth II on Thursday as it threw things like when the House of Commons might reconvene into chaos. (TBK BASED ON WHAT WE LEARN ABOUT THAT FRIDAY)
He will benefit from the fact that staffing levels at OLO have plummeted in the run-up to the race, meaning there are vacancies to fill rather than being forced to lay people off.
WHO LEADS THE TRANSITION? CAN I CONFIRM TO JOIN?
But an open question for Poilievre is what kind of manager he will be.
Although he has considerable political experience and understanding, part of running OLO is being chief executive – and although he spent time as a cabinet minister in the last Conservative government, the workplace landscape now brings with it new demands.
How he meets them will be critical to guiding the party to victory. And time is of the essence – Parliament resumes in just over a week.
The group is expected to meet for the first time this week, and Poilievre and his family are also expected to move into the official opposition leaders’ residence in Stornoway. (TBC)
Expect some political banter on this issue, given that the high cost of housing has been a key attack for Poilievre, but he’s about to move into a taxpayer-funded mansion.
When Poilievre pulled out of the third official leadership debate, organized at the last minute by party officials, he was fined $50,000.
They joked a lot, so what? The money was just going to the party he was going to take anyway.
The party made over a million dollars in membership sales alone in this leadership race, and how those and other funds will be spent is now part of Poilievre’s job.
Like OLO, a number of party positions have remained vacant since the start of the leadership race, so Poilievre will move quickly to put his own stamp on party affairs.
James Cummings, the former MP who led the party’s post-election review, said overhauling the party’s electoral machinery and getting it up and running was urgent.
“There are 50 places that could potentially be traded, and tactically you have to start early,” he said in a recent interview.
This includes everything from upgrading the party’s database to refreshing and renewing links with riding associations.
“Once we get through this leadership race, we can start building the infrastructure to form a government,” he said.
Preparation for the next elections
His first three businesses flow into a fourth – preparation for the next election campaign.
Just weeks after O’Toole won the leadership in 2020, his team commissioned a study from a British consulting firm to help guide their strategy for the possible next election.
With a Liberal minority government that could fall at any time, there was no time to lose.
The 2021 campaign returned the Liberals with another minority, and then they signed an agreement with the NDP to support them at least until 2025 in exchange for action on some key NDP priorities.
But Poilievre can’t count on all that prep time — there’s no guarantee the deal will stick.
There is a tactical side to the campaign – whether Poilievre, for example, will give his rival leader Roman Baber a seat to run at the election – but there are other elements that need to start quickly.
How Poilievre will present himself to the Canadians is one thing.
While much has been made of how he has massively expanded the party’s base — its membership is now at a record high — poll after poll during the race suggests that support has yet to break through nationally.
No one expects him to “turn heads” to politics in the same way that O’Toole did, but even Tory insiders expect a relaunch of his campaign narratives in a way designed to appeal to a wide range of voters.
And he will have to act quickly to define his narrative before his critics define it for him.
Poilievre has been relentlessly attacked by his rivals for leaning into conspiracy theories about the World Economic Forum, seeing digital currency as a way to ward off inflation and the fact that some far-right leaders appear to be in his corner, and he doesn’t has shown the door more clearly.
These concerns also exist within his own party – some point to the fact that the Conservatives are a party of law and order and one that strongly believes in the value of institutions, and yet Poilievre has sided with the so-called Freedom Convoy protest in violation of the law. He also wants to fire the governor of the Bank of Canada.
The Liberals and NDP are watching warily, aware that Poilievre has capitalized on existing anger and frustration among voters who could see their own voters swing in his direction.
It’s a delicate balancing act for all politicians – crafting policies that address people’s real problems without further stoking anger.
“A lot of people who are angry have felt neglected, so how do you acknowledge them without endorsing them?” Andrew McDougall, communications director for former Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper, said recently on the Curse of Politics podcast.
What a Poilievre government would do to address a number of ongoing problems is also unclear. His campaign policy promises were not extensive or detailed.
There are open questions about his positions on climate change, how he would handle the war in Ukraine, badly needed funding and potential health care reform, and reconciliation with indigenous peoples.
I WOULD LIKE TO CLOSE WITH SOMETHING FROM POILLIEVER’S SPEECH AS A KICKER.
Stephanie Levitz is an Ottawa reporter covering federal politics for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @StephanieLevits
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