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Instead of worrying about Scheer’s performance, Conservatives should be concerned about Bernier as a ‘disrupter’ in next election, says pollster Nanos

By Abbas Rana      

Pollster Nik Nanos describes Conservatives who are second guessing Andrew Scheer's performance 10 months before an election as ‘Nervous Nellies.' Jean Chrétien coined the term back in 1993 when Liberals were nervous about losing the federal election, but ended up reducing the Progressive Conservatives to two seats.

Political insiders say it's too early to make any judgment about Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer's performance as the opposition leader, but pollster Nik Nanos says People's Party MP Maxime Bernier could be a nuisance to Mr. Scheer and his Conservatives in the next election. Mr. Scheer is pictured watching the results roll in with then-Conservative leadership candidate Mr. Bernier at the party's leadership convention in Toronto on May 27, 2017. The Hill Times file photograph
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Even if Maxime Bernier and his newly launched People’s Party don’t make any significant electoral gains in the House in 2019, they’ll still be “disrupters and a nuisance” for Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer, whose party could lose some seats, especially in closely contested ridings if the vote is divided on the right, says leading pollster Nik Nanos.

“If you are a Conservative caucus member, I would probably be worried more about Maxime Bernier than worrying about Andrew Scheer’s performance, at this particular point in time,” said Mr. Nanos, chair of Nanos Research, in a recent interview last week with The Hill Times. “The likelihood of them [the People’s Party] winning an election or coming second is not high today, but it is possible for Maxime Bernier to be a disrupter.”

Based on his weekly polling results, Mr. Nanos said currently only one in 10 Canadians would consider voting for Mr. Bernier’s (Beauce, Que.) People’s Party. So, it appears highly unlikely at this time that the People’s Party will make any significant electoral gains in 2019, but it’s still bad news for Andrew Scheer’s (Regina-Qu’Appelle, Sask.) Conservatives. The potential impact of the ‘Bernier factor’ in the next election is unknown, but Conservatives should pay close attention, as a divided vote on the right is not good news for the party, especially in closely contested ridings, said Mr. Nanos.

“The objective of Maxime Bernier would be to disrupt Andrew Scheer, especially during the next election, and try to shake loose disaffected Conservatives to the new party that Maxime Bernier is trying to build,” said Mr. Nanos, adding that for Mr. Bernier “to have an impact, he also needs Mr. Scheer to falter.”

In the 2015 election, there were 70 ridings nationally that were decided by a margin of five per cent or less of the vote. Of these, the Liberals won 34, the NDP won 16, the Conservatives won 15, and the Bloc Québécois won five. Twenty-eight of these closely fought ridings were in Ontario, 22 in Quebec, four in Alberta, nine in British Columbia, three in Manitoba, two in Saskatchewan, and one each in Newfoundland and Labrador and New Brunswick.

Pollster Nik Nanos says People’s Party MP Maxime Bernier will be a ‘disrupter’ and a ‘nuisance’ for the Conservatives in the next federal election. The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade

According to the most recent weekly rolling Nanos tracking poll released on Nov. 27, the Liberals were leading the pack with the support of 40 per cent of Canadians, followed by the Conservatives with 32 per cent, the NDP 15 per cent, the Greens seven, and the People’s Party with one per cent support.

Mr. Nanos noted the next election is 10 months away, and said it’s not surprising that the opposition leader does not have the comparable profile as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (Papineau, Que.), and it’s too early to make any judgment about Conservative leader’s performance. He said that the best strategy for Mr. Scheer is to ensure that he does not make any major mistakes, and focus on election issues such as the economy, prosperity and jobs.

“If he wants to take a strong position on something, it should be related to economy and jobs; that’s what the next election is going to be fought on,” said Mr. Nanos.

In the May 2017 Conservative leadership contest, Mr. Bernier came in a close second place to Mr. Scheer, losing by less than one per cent of the vote. The contest turned out to be a nail biter and the winner was decided on the 13th ballot, in the 14-candidate race. Mr. Bernier, along with some of his top supporters, later accused the Conservative Party of rigging the leadership contest to get the desired victory for Mr. Scheer, the Conservative caucus’ favoured candidate. The Conservative Party vehemently denied these allegations and said Mr. Scheer won in a fair contest.

In August of this year, Mr. Bernier left the Conservative Party and started his own, the People’s Party of Canada. In his parting shots, Mr. Bernier described the Conservatives as “morally corrupt” and blasted his former party for deserting its “core principles.”

Mr. Bernier has said his fledgling party will be taking full part in the 2019 election, vowing to run candidates in all 338 federal ridings, which could potentially see Conservatives loose a chunk of their votes, giving an advantage to the Liberals.

Conservative MPs and Senator Denise Batters, right, listen in as party leader Andrew Scheer addresses his caucus at the weekly meeting on Sept. 19, 2018. The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade

In order to win a majority government in 2019, Mr. Nanos said, the Liberal need to consolidate progressive voters and face a divided opposition.

First elected in the 2006 federal election, Mr. Bernier served as a cabinet minister in Stephen Harper’s Conservative government, holding high-profile portfolios including Foreign Affairs, Industry, Small Business, and Agriculture. In May 2008, Mr. Bernier resigned as foreign affairs minister from the Harper cabinet after his former girlfriend Julie Couillard revealed in a media interview that the minister left a classified document at her apartment which she later returned to the department. Prior to dating Mr. Bernier, Ms. Couillard, at one time, was in a relationship with an individual linked to the criminal biker underworld. Mr. Harper brought Mr. Bernier back into the cabinet in 2011 and he stayed there until the Conservatives lost the 2015 election.

Tim Powers, a veteran Conservative political insider and vice chairman of Summa Strategies, agreed that Conservatives should pay attention to Mr. Bernier’s party, but added it’s not possible for him to predict how Canada’s newest federal party will perform. He said so far there’s no well-known person other than Mr. Bernier who has joined the party.

“Andrew Scheer should not be blind to Maxime Bernier’s project, but neither should he be in a state of paralysis about it,” said Mr. Powers. “It really is unclear at this juncture if Bernier’s adventure in leadership will amount to anything. When the People’s Party reaches beyond more than one person in the front window then an accurate assessment can be made.”

Five-term Conservative MP David Tilson says that Maxime Bernier will steal some votes from the Conservatives, but not enough to make his party lose any seat in 2019. The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade

Five-term Conservative MP David Tilson (Dufferin-Caledon, Ont.) in an interview with The Hill Times said the Conservatives know that Mr. Bernier and his party will take some votes away from his party in 2019, but said it won’t be enough to make Conservatives lose any seats.

“He’ll have an effect, but we’ll deal with it,” said Mr. Tilson, who is not running for re-election in 2019.

“We’ll see how Mr. Bernier does over the next year. Right now, he seems to be getting some support. We’ll see how long that lasts.”

Meanwhile, National Post columnist John Ivison, citing unnamed sources, wrote on Nov. 23 that “there are simply too many Conservatives, in and out of caucus,” who opine that their leader has so far failed to show “decisive” and “dynamic” leadership. He added that the unnamed sources also were unhappy that the party leader is not taking decisive positions on issues for fear that it would upset Ontario Progressive Conservative Premier Doug Ford, or United Conservative Party Leader Jason Kenney, who appears likely to win next year’s provincial election in Alberta. Mr. Ivison also predicted that if Mr. Scheer fails to win the next election, or at the least, fails to reduce the Liberals to a minority government, the Conservative leader would have to step down.

“If the Conservatives win, or even hold Justin Trudeau to a minority, Scheer’s position is assured,” wrote Mr. Ivison. “Any other outcome leaves him vulnerable.”

But Conservative MPs reached by The Hill Times vehemently denied that caucus members have any concerns about Mr. Scheer’s leadership.

“It’s not true,” Mr. Tilson said. “I can tell you our caucus overwhelmingly supports our leader. I can tell you my riding overwhelmingly supports our leader.”

Conservative MP Mark Warawa (Langley-Aldergrave, B.C.), in an interview with The Hill Times, blasted his unnamed colleagues who were quoted in the column, saying their criticism lacks “integrity” because they declined to attach their names to their comments.

Five-term Conservative MP Mark Warawa blasts his caucus colleagues who have anonymously criticized Andrew Scheer’s leadership. The Hill Times file photograph

“My name is Mark Warawa. I’m the Member of Parliament for Langley-Aldergrove, and I’m incredibly proud of Andrew Scheer as my leader,” said Mr. Warawa, who was first elected in 2004 and has been re-elected in all four subsequent federal elections. “What’s the name of this person that’s hiding in the corner wanting to be anonymous and criticizing somebody? That person doesn’t appear to have the courage or the integrity to give their name. They want to stay anonymous, that would show the quality of the critique is garbage, it has no validity. If a person is not willing to give their name, Canadians shouldn’t pay any attention to [that person].”

Both Messrs. Warawa and Tilson insisted that Mr. Scheer would oust the Liberals in 2019, and declined to discuss what could happen if the Conservatives fail to form government or reduce the Liberals to a minority government.

Mr. Nanos described Conservatives who are concerned about Mr. Scheer’s performance as “nervous Nellies.” He said ideally, Mr. Scheer should start to peak at the right time—that being the start of the election campaign—rather than peaking now and potentially losing support close to the election time.

Mr. Powers said Conservatives who are raising concerns about Mr. Scheer’s leadership are doing because they don’t see the needle moving in public opinion polls. But, he said, it’s not unusual for opposition leaders to not have the same popularity as the prime minister a year out from an election. Mr. Powers pointed out that before the 2015 election, Mr. Trudeau was the third place leader, in the House and in public opinion polls, but still went on to win the election and form a majority government.

“You remember going into the last election campaign: Justin Trudeau was in a woeful third place, the NDP were topping the polls and Steven Harper, as many assumed would win again. So, we were having those conversations 10 months out, last time. Look how useful they turned out to be?”

The Hill Times 

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