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Conservative caucus rallies around Scheer; Bernier knew unity would have been tough for him, says Clement

By Chelsea Nash      

Seventeen caucus members had endorsed Maxime Bernier, while Scheer had almost double.

Maxime Bernier, left, lost the Conservative leadership to Andrew Scheer, right, on Saturday night in a tight race that saw Mr. Scheer squeak by Mr. Bernier with 50.95 per cent support, versus Mr. Bernier's 49.05 per cent. They are pictured awaiting the results of the final ballot at the Toronto Congress Centre. The Hill Times photograph by Jake Wright
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Despite his tight victory, Conservative caucus members say they are unified in their support for new party leader Andrew Scheer, something Maxime Bernier was anticipating to be a challenge for him had he won, according to an MP who worked on his campaign.

Tony Clement (Parry Sound-Muskoka, Ont.), who initially ran for the leadership himself before dropping out to back Mr. Bernier (Beauce, Que.) said “Max was really concerned…in the weeks before the vote” about his ability to unite the Conservative caucus, with caucus endorsements from just seven MPs and 10 Senators (11 if you count newly independent Senator Stephen Greene), out of a total 99 Conservative MPs and 38 Senators.

“He had a plan in place to address that,” Mr. Clement said, “he realized he would have to make an outreach to caucus.”

He said the plan was “just to have conversations” with members of caucus.

Mr. Bernier had rubbed some caucus members the wrong way during the campaign, for instance, because of his desire to end the supply management system of price controls for dairy and poultry.

Meanwhile, in the first days of Mr. Scheer’s (Regina-Qu’Appelle, Sask.) leadership, it’s clear he has made caucus unity one his first priorities, after having narrowly won his party’s leadership Saturday in a 13-round nail-biter that saw Mr. Bernier leading the pack of 14 candidates on the ballot until the last round, when Mr. Scheer squeaked by Mr. Bernier with 50.95 per cent support, versus Mr. Bernier’s 49.05 per cent.

On Monday morning, Mr. Scheer hosted the first caucus meeting as leader. Media were invited to attend Mr. Scheer’s opening remarks to caucus, but were asked to leave soon after for the rest of the normally private weekly meeting.

Mr. Clement said that “behind closed doors,” Mr. Scheer iterated “how important it was that the leadership candidates rallied around him.”

Mr. Scheer had nearly twice as many caucus endorsements as Mr. Bernier, 24 MPs and eight Senators, though he was still bested by third-place contender Erin O’Toole (Durham, Ont.), who had 31 MPs, and four Senators endorse him.

After starting off his first Question Period as leader Monday, Mr. Scheer gave the floor to Mr. Bernier to ask the next Conservative question. The following questions came from Mr. Scheer’s other former leadership rivals, Kellie Leitch (Simcoe-Grey, Ont.), Mr. O’Toole, Steven Blaney (Bellechasse-Les Etchemins-Lévis, Que.), Michael Chong (Wellington-Halton Hills, Ont.), Brad Trost (Saskatoon-University, Sask.), and Lisa Raitt (Milton, Ont.). Deepak Obhrai (Calgary Forest Lawn, Alta.), the first to drop off the ballot Saturday night, did not ask a question.

Saturday night after Mr. Scheer’s first speech as leader, MP Matt Jeneroux (Edmonton Riverbend, Alta.), who supported Mr. Scheer in the race, said “From day one, Andrew’s always been talking about keeping the party united. It was part of his central message.”

Mr. Jeneroux said “it was disappointing” to see certain things coming out of Mr. Bernier’s team in the final days of the campaign, like when strategist Emrys Graefe spoke negatively about Mr. Scheer in a profile piece by iPolitics published the day of the final result.

“[Scheer’s camp] are the ones talking about unity as a problem and I’m pretty sure it’s because they don’t intend to play nicely with us when we win, so it will be interesting, very interesting,” he was quoted as saying.

MP Shannon Stubbs (Lakeland, Alta.), another Scheer supporter, said one of the reasons she stood behind him in the first place was “he’s a person who believes that our party didn’t need to do a massive overhaul in terms of our policies, our values, and our principles, but that what we need to do is to communicate our philosophy in a positive way.”

Though he’s a social conservative himself, Mr. Scheer has avoided encouraging a debate on divisive issues such as abortion and gay marriage, so as to maintain party unity.

Peter Kent (Thornhill, Ont.) said after the party’s first caucus meeting with Mr. Scheer, he already felt there was unity amongst them after a “long…hard-fought” race. He described Monday’s caucus meeting as “enthusiastic…happy,” and “sincerely joyous.”

“We are a united caucus,” said Mr. Kent, who supported Mr. Chong in the leadership race.

MP Jim Eglinski (Yellowhead, Alta.) said he felt ‘the whole campaign” was “friendly between all of us,” referring to the caucus. He said he didn’t think there would have been any difference in caucus unity had Mr. Bernier won instead of Mr. Scheer. Mr. Eglinski had endorsed Mr. O’Toole.

Gérard Deltell (Louis-Saint-Laurent, Que.), another O’Toole supporter, noted on Monday morning that, “Saturday night his speech was a great one, attracting people, uniting people, and very good in French.” Speaking on Monday morning immediately after the caucus meeting, he added, “We are very proud of what was said, especially this morning.”

He said the decision by an MP to endorse someone is entirely “personal,” not a “tribal vote.”

“We are very proud to have a new leader and we’ll support him 100 per cent,” he said.

Conservative Senator Leo Housakos, who supported Mr. Bernier, said he was “disappointed” by the outcome, given that his candidate didn’t win. “Any time you lose any election, it’s disappointing,” he said.

But, he said he is “very optimistic and hopeful” for the future of the party under Mr. Scheer’s guidance.  

“I think Andrew Scheer will have success uniting our caucus, both MPs and Senators,” he said, something he attributed to Mr. Scheer’s time as House Speaker from 2011 to 2015. He said his years of public service showed he had “respect for Parliament.”  

MP John Brassard (Barrie-Innisfil, Ont.) said all of caucus expressed a desire to come together on Monday morning “in a unified force,” because “the problems that exist right now are greater than any potential problems that might exist in caucus,” referring to the Liberal Party as the source of the bigger problems.

From my standpoint, we are going to come out of this leadership race, and I’m already seeing evidence of this, as a united Conservative caucus with Andrew at the helm,” he said.

Tory MPs, Senators ‘relieved’ race is over

Several Conservative MPs said they were relieved that a 15-month leadership race had finally ended.

Mr. Kent said he was “relieved [and] happy…that Michael achieved an excellent showing.” Mr. Chong placed fifth overall among the 14 contestants (businessman Kevin O’Leary dropped out of the running, but it was too late to take his name off the ballot).

Mr. Brassard, who supported the third-place candidate Mr. O’Toole, said his “sense of relief” was the fact that the race was over.

“Finally, we had reached a point where we had picked a leader,” he said. “It’s all part of the renewal process for a party that has gone through defeat, that has lost its leader…who’s stepped aside. It’s all part of the process,” he said.  

Ms. Stubbs said the same: “I think there is…a little bit of a relief that we’re at the end of the race and we can now focus on the next step and next phase of growing our movement and continuing to re-grow our party.”

Mr. Kent said the next big building block for the party is its policy convention, which will take place during the last weekend in August, 2018, in Halifax. Caucus members will now set their sights on that weekend, having chosen a new leader, he said.

Mr. Clement said the next priority Mr. Scheer and the Conservative Party will face after caucus unity is pivoting “from what was an internal conversation to a conversation with Canadians in general,” he said.

After that, “another internal thing, is to get battle ready for the next federal election,” he said.

news@hilltimes.com

@chels_nash

Conservative caucus endorsements

Maxime Bernier

Dan Albas MP

Alupa Clarke MP

Tony Clement MP

Jacques Gourde MP

Tom Kmiec MP

Alex Nuttall MP

Len Webber MP

Lynn Beyak Senator

Claude Carignan Senator

Nicole Eaton Senator

Leo Housakos Senator

Michael L. MacDonald Senator

Ghislain Maltais Senator

Thanh Hai Ngo Senator

Kelvin Ogilvie Senator

Larry Smith Senator

David Wells Senator

Total: 17 (7 MPs, 10 Senators)

Andrew Scheer

Ziad Aboultaif MP

David Anderson MP

John Barlow MP

Luc Berthold MP

Kelly Block MP

Sylvie Boucher MP

Ted Falk MP

Garnett Genuis MP

Marilyn Gladu MP

Matt Jeneroux MP

Tom Lukiwski MP

Pierre Paul-Hus MP

Alain Rayes MP

Scott Reid MP

Gerry Ritz MP

Bob Saroya MP

Kevin Sorenson MP

Mark Strahl MP

Shannon Stubbs MP

Arnold Viersen MP

Cathay Wagantall MP

Mark Warawa MP

Chris Warkentin MP

Bob Zimmer MP

Denise Batters Senator

Norman Doyle Senator

Dennis Patterson Senator

Don Plett Senator

Carolyn Stewart Olsen Senator

Scott Tannas Senator

David Tkachuk Senator

Betty Unger Senator

Total: 32 (24 MPs, 8 Senators)

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