Can Poilievre stickhandle his way to victory?
So, there's a political player who wants to shift Conservatism to the centre of the ice? And there's another pretender in the penalty box who would send the puck even deeper into Conservatism's own zone? And neither of these players is the actual captain of the team? I'm no hockey expert, but I know this is all going to require skilful footwork on Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre's part. Are his skates sharp enough?
To put it plainly, while the federal Conservative party may have smart MPs, hyper-enthused supporters and beat the Liberals in popular vote in 2019 and 2021, the party has a base problem. It needs more voters in urban and suburban places to win enough seats to form government. That's why the re-emergence of two former Conservative leadership contenders poses potential headaches for the party.
At one extreme is the return of the Max. Maxime Bernier, that is, and his rightwing People's Party of Canada, announcing his candidacy in an upcoming Manitoba byelection in a bid to gain a seat in the Commons whilst stealing one from Poilievre's Conservatives.
The People's Party won just under five per cent of the popular vote in the 2021 federal election. It's not totally clear in all ridings whether PPC supporters were historical non-voters who emerged from the woodwork because they liked Bernier's brand of woo-woo politics, or disaffected Conservative voters who broke away from the party because they didn't like where former leader Erin O'Toole was taking it. Either way, it's five per cent the Conservatives would like to have had. Whatever they say, Bernier is under their skin. Cue the tweets this week (and almost every week) from the current Conservative leader on the culture wars.
On the other end of the spectrum, the advocacy group Centre Ice Canadians, led by former federal Conservative leadership candidate Rick Peterson, is once again floating the trial balloon of a new party altogether. On paper, the concept has merit.
This government has been around the better part of a decade. There is a cohort of fatigued Liberals looking for a credible alternative to Justin Trudeau and ready to jump. These days, nearly 20 per cent of past Liberal voters disapprove of their own leader. And polling from last summer's Conservative leadership race showed that, had a more moderate leader such as Jean Charest emerged victorious, fully 1-in-4 past Liberal voters would have considered defecting. Again, given that the Conservatives need more voters, not fewer, this should also keep them up at night.
Don't underestimate, however, the difference between more moderate leadership atop an established party — with the budget and infrastructure it needs to run a successful campaign — versus starting a thing from scratch. Also, don't underestimate longtime Conservative donors, strategists and party grandees who may whisper about Poilievre's lack of appeal among the voters he needs (especially women), but who are ultimately more motivated by the prospect of dumping Trudeau and returning to power. Many figure they can fix the party's drift to the right from within.
The political math is pretty clear: any party serious about forming government needs to be able to win over more moderate, more urban, younger voters in seat-rich regions. In courting them, the Conservative party may risk shedding some votes in some ridings to the PPC, but often in places where they'd win, anyway. If Poilievre is serious about making the transition from opposition to the top job, he must focus on tapping into that base of voters looking for an alternative to Trudeau — the ones who walk right up to the ballot box, but back away from the Conservatives every single time, turned off by what they see and hear.
In practical terms, those Centre-Icers are unlikely to skate very far. But they provide a needed ballast to keep the Conservative ship tilting even further to the right.