“This is the battle the conservatives want, and this is the battle the liberals want,” Gary Keller, vice president of StrategyCorp and a seasoned veteran of conservative politics, told POLITICO.
During a recent Cabinet retreat, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau reportedly confirmed to ministers that he intended to run another campaign – a rare chance to win four consecutive campaigns only twice in Canadian history.
Whispers among restless Liberal workers on Parliament Hill about succession planning have died down. It is now a question of overthrowing a fourth consecutive Tory leader.
But they will have to beat a Tory party that is expected to unite behind Poilievre, 43, an impressive feat of reconciliation after a contest laden with insults.
In the end, Poilievre’s victory is decisive.
His campaign claimed to recruit more than 300,000 new party members. By the time the ballots were counted, he had accrued 68.15% of the total points in a system that awards 100 points to each of Canada’s 338 ridings.
The new leader has amassed a devoted following since launching his campaign in February, on the heels of former leader Erin O’Toole’s ousting by a vote of the party’s national caucus.
“Tonight begins the journey to replace an old government that costs you more and gives you less with a new government that puts you first — your salary, your pension, your home, your country,” he told a noisy crowd.
His team is a group of experienced operatives who cut their teeth in Stephen Harper’s government, which lost power in 2015. Others gained valuable experience when Doug Ford soared to the Prime Minister’s Office in Ontario.
But most of the voters who delivered the party to Poilievre are not seasoned politicians. They are disgruntled Canadians united by skepticism about career politicians and the institutions that underpin their democracy.
They found their man in Poilievre, who is now in his 18th year in office. But as he sets out to build an electoral machine designed to crush liberals, will his legions of supporters find their voice in his Conservative Party?
One priority to rule them all
Shakir Chambers, a conservative strategist and director of Earnscliffe Strategies, predicted that Poilievre would maintain a “laser focus” on the economy in his early days as chief.
The new leader was the first to blame Trudeau for exacerbating a national cost-of-living crisis by driving up deficits, overtaxing Canadians and forcing them into more debt to cover essentials.
Poilievre even gave it a name: Justinflation.
“By fighting liberal inflation,” he said on Saturday, “we’ll put you back in control of your life and your money.”
It’s a winning question, Chambers said. “His economic message is very relevant, and that’s what propelled him to the top. Why are you deviating from that right now when it’s a priority for Canadians?”
But Poilievre won’t be without challenges, Chambers says. A recent poll by Nanos Research showed that “about 70%” of Canadians do not support politicians who approach truck convoys.
“It’s not a growth strategy for anyone or any party that wants to try to win a majority, I would even say a minority government,” pollster Nik Nanos told CTV News.
When the truckers first arrived in Ottawa last January, Poilievre recorded video of support on a bridge atop a highway on the outskirts of the city. “Freedom, not fear,” he shouted over the horns. “Truckers, not Trudeau.
He then clarified that protesters who break the law deserve condemnation, but always supported the convoy’s stated aim of ending government-imposed Covid mandates.
This fall, an independent commission will launch public hearings to investigate the government’s use of emergency powers during the convoy’s prolonged occupation of downtown Ottawa – and the blockades at several border crossings.
The commission poses a risk to the Trudeau government, which critics say went too far in invoking the Emergencies Act. But the hearings could also put Poilievre on the defensive.
The Liberals have carefully carved out a litany of campaign statements from Poilievre, including his insistence on the trail that cryptocurrencies could help Canadians “opt out” of inflation.
Poilievre dabbled in far-right talking points. He didn’t quite endorse conspiracy theories that the World Economic Forum is planning a hostile takeover of Canadian sovereignty. But he amassed large crowds in real life – and millions of online hits – by promising never to send a Cabinet minister to the WEF’s annual Davos summit.
The Liberals will use this as a whistle to conspiratorial supporters and donors whose votes could swing an election.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that the Liberals have kept their powder dry so far,” Chambers said. “They are going to unleash a furious campaign against Poilievre.
Seconds after the result was announced, the Liberals issued a fiery press release.
“We will stand up and speak out against the reckless policies that Mr. Poilievre has advocated since the start of his leadership campaign and during his nearly 20 years as a Conservative insider,” said a statement attributed to the Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs, Dominic LeBlanc. and Quebec MP Rachel Bendayan.
Conservative momentum on Poilievre’s central message on inflation could also be thwarted by unforeseen events – for example, a series of suffocating wildfires that force climate change return at the top of the country’s agenda.
Poilievre opposes the Trudeau government’s carbon pricing, but he did not release a detailed climate policy during his leadership race. There may be something waiting behind the scenes. A source close to the leader’s political team told POLITICO that the campaign had developed dozens of policy proposals that never saw the light of day.
What matters most to the Conservative herd now is unity — between the national caucus, the strategists who deliver key messages to reporters, the operatives who have spent months undermining each other’s candidate, and the party members who ranked Poilievre first to last on their ballots.
Conservative spinners have pivoted to a common unity narrative following turbulent leadership campaigns. Just weeks before the result, some anti-Poilievre operatives insisted they would never campaign for a party led by Poilievre.
By Saturday they had changed their tune and started preaching unity.
“The Conservative Party must stand united behind our next leader because our country needs unity now more than ever,” O’Toole said in a farewell video message released on Saturday. “Where there is unity, there is always victory.”
Poilievre thanked all of his opponents for showing up and gave special mention to Charest, a rival he had criticized throughout the campaign as a tax liberal and spendthrift. In the victory, Poilievre thanked Charest for his service to Canada during Quebec’s secession referendum in 1995.
“You resisted with courage and passion,” said Poilievre, who also praised Charest’s wife, Michèle Dionne, for making “countless unseen sacrifices” during her husband’s public life.
Poilievre’s conciliatory rhetoric reinforced the unity narrative. “To the supporters of all these fine candidates, I open my arms to you. Now, today, we are a party serving a country,” he said.
Charest returned the favor on Twitter. “You deserve a clean slate and the opportunity to unite members,” he wrote. “We need to end the internal bashing. Only the Liberals benefit from a divided (Conservative Party).
Protect the leader
Poilievre’s time is now his most important resource, Keller says. He says he would advise the campaign team to protect Poilievre from an onslaught of demands from caucus members, agents, donors and speakers hungry for speaking time.
“You have to cut out the noise and save the sanity and the time of the leader,” says Keller, who witnessed the frantic first few days after Andrew Scheer won the leadership in 2017. “If you don’t, the people will just steal this time.
Sixty-two MPs supported Poilievre. They will want to talk to their new boss. Add up all the donors and volunteers who need to be thanked, and there would be no time left in the day to think about important decisions.
Poilievre will have to appoint a shadow cabinet and start hiring staff for the Leader of the Opposition’s office. The next regular sitting of the House is scheduled for September 19.