As Boris Johnson took his last political breath (for now), one could not help but admire the ruthless efficiency of the British Conservative Party when it comes to picking a new leader.
From the time of his defiant final speech in front of No 10, it only took two weeks for the large field of contenders to be winnowed down to the final two; after another six weeks, the Party’s members will have chosen a new leader and prime minister in early September, with hours to spare before the beginning of the new Parliamentary session.
By contrast, the Conservative Party of Canada (CPC), perhaps the least electorally successful of all the major right-wing parties of the Anglosphere, has been more or less continually embroiled in leadership contests since Justin Trudeau became prime minister in 2015. The first one lasted eighteen months from 2015 to 2017, and the second occupied the better part of 2020.
Both times, the winner was promptly thrown out after reducing the Liberals to a minority government when the Party expected them to win outright.
Now the CPC is repeating the exercise all over again, to the marked uninterest of anyone but its members.
But this time it might actually matter: Trudeau’s popularity has rightly slumped as his Teflon coating is beginning to wear out, and the next Canadian Tory leader might for once become prime minister, following the infallible law of Canadian politics, which is that Conservatives only get their shot at power when the Liberals screw up badly for an extended period of time.
The current frontrunner by some distance is Pierre Poilievre, the Ottawa MP. First elected to Parliament a month after his 25th birthday, he rapidly acquired a well-deserved reputation as the party’s “attack dog”, and has been a frontbencher for a decade.
He comes from the erstwhile Reform/Alliance Party, which merged with the old Progressive Conservative Party in 2003 to create the current CPC, and brings with him Alliance’s ‘populist’ legacy, alongside a certain libertarian tendency. Characteristically, he marched with leaders of the Freedom Convoy in a protest in Ottawa right before Canada Day: the press reaction was overwhelmingly negative, which in the context of the race this is probably a plus.
Poilievre’s chief rival, at least according to outside commentators, is Jean Charest. A former leader of the Progressive Conservatives, the other ancestor of the current Conservative Party and, confusingly, an ex-Liberal premier of Quebec, Charest is running on a broad tent, centrist, reasonable Conservative platform, the sort of thing which is popular with everyone except those who might actually vote Conservative.
His term as premier of Quebec will forever be associated with widespread corruption and sleaze (though it is only fair to note he has never been charged with any offence) and there is no evidence that there is much demand for his brand of centrism just now.
Of the remainder of the field, the only one worth mentioning at any length is Patrick Brown. A former leader of the Progressive Conservative Party of Ontario, he was ousted from that post over allegations of sexual misconduct. Brown then became Mayor of Brampton, a city with a very large Indian-Canadian population, his traditional political base.
But he was disqualified from the race in July over allegations of financial irregularities, which he is contesting. Never wholly popular with the parliamentary party or the party apparatus, his ignominious exit will not be universally mourned.
All this being said, Canadian party leadership elections are notoriously hard to predict. They are won and lost in large part on the basis of candidates’ ability to sign up new members during the race (at $15 a year for the CPC, or just under £10), which rewards ground game (and some would say the ability to make use of ethnic “vote-banks”) above all else.
The CPC had 169,000 members at the end of 2021; now it has 678,000. Many of them will have joined out of anger against Trudeau; whether and how they will shape the CPC’s policy direction in the long run very much remains to be seen.
The race’s other great unknown is the CPC’s voting system, which is designed to reward votes cast in parts of the country with few Conservative members. The system was put in place when the Progressive Conservative and Alliance parties merged to form the CPC in 2003, in order to allay fears that Western Canada, where the bulk of the new party’s membership lived, would overwhelm Eastern Canada.
Charest, in particular, is counting on his relative popularity in Eastern Canada to counteract his poor performance in signing up new members, though this may not save him in the end. Perhaps more fatally for him, it is now not even clear that he is actually popular in the East, particular in Quebec, where his high name recognition might well be a hinderance given his political past.
Canadian politics do not usually thrill anyone, not even Canadians, who by and large follow American politics more closely. This is a shame, as Canada is often at the forefront of political trends within the Anglosphere. Beyond its intrinsic interest, it deserves far more attention than it currently gets for that reason alone.