Last weekend, the Conservative Party of Canada anointed longtime Ottawa-area MP Pierre Poilievre as its new leader — the fourth since 2015.
Recent Tory leadership races have unfolded along the same bland and predictable lines. In an effort to game the party’s ranked balloting system, Poilievre’s somewhat hapless predecessors Andrew Scheer and Erin O’Toole both pitched themselves to parts of its coalition with boutique policy offerings that were quietly dropped (or at least muted) as soon as the votes had been counted. In general elections, Conservative leaders have tended to pivot to a more boring and transactional message aimed at suburban swing voters. Overtly right-wing campaigning, it’s been generally understood, is too much of an electoral risk, and there’s no good reason to try it when good old-fashioned triangulation is an option instead.
As a strategy, it hasn’t quite worked — or, at any rate, it hasn’t been sufficiently effective to win government. Under their last two leaders, the Conservatives actually surpassed the Liberals in the popular vote, but they fell well short in seats as discontent simmered within the party ranks. The Tory membership, being sharply to the right of the Canadian electorate, represents a conundrum for any aspiring Conservative prime minister — one that was evidently too daunting for relatively traditional politicians like Scheer and O’Toole to overcome.
Which brings us to Pierre Poilievre, whose crushing victory last weekend recalled Justin Trudeau’s coronation as leader of the Liberal Party back in 2013. While there were technically four other candidates (and one who was disqualified), the actual leadership vote was more or less a formality. Poilievre’s campaign was victorious in 330 of Canada’s 338 ridings, smashing former Quebec premier (and media favorite) Jean Charest, who scored a meager 16 percent on the first — and, as it turned out, only — ballot, winning a pitiful six.
As distinct from Scheer, O’Toole, and his various rivals, Poilievre won by abandoning triangulation and instead leaning as hard as he could into ideology. The result was a campaign that broadcast its open support for the so-called Freedom Convoy, reveled in its truculence toward the media, and struck populist notes on certain economic issues. At times, this approach seemed at least rhetorically effective, though at its silliest, Poilievre’s gimmickry had all the kitsch weirdness of a Tim and Eric sketch. While incredibly successful in the context of a leadership race, it remains to be seen how such an approach will fare in a federal election — and whether Poilievre’s lengthy history as a bona fide right-wing ideologue will actually represent the electoral Achilles’ heel that Liberal strategists presume it does.
What is clear is that Canada’s Conservative Party is about to undertake a somewhat novel experiment in narrative, messaging, and policy. For this reason, Poilievre’s candidacy has elicited a new and tiresome round of pundit discourse concerned with the dangers of “populism,” whether Trumpism has finally come to Canada, and whether the victory of an overtly right-wing candidate signals the final, tragic death of some imagined breed of more chivalrous conservatism.
The answer to the latter question — whatever genuine novelty can be found in Poilievre’s political style — is a resounding no. Having been a member of parliament since 2004, the new Tory leader is about as thoroughly a creature of institutional conservatism as can possibly be imagined. His overwhelming victory in the leadership race may have involved defeating a series of more ideologically cautious rivals, but he also received the backing of a large swath of sitting Tory MPs, several retired cabinet ministers, and even former prime minister Stephen Harper. Politically speaking, he is therefore proposing to take the party rightward — to where the lion’s share of its members already are.
In short, little to nothing about Poilievre’s trajectory suggests a break or rupture with Canadian conservatism’s recent past, beyond the level of style and the extent of grassroots enthusiasm it has managed to generate. Last weekend, as some pundits would have it, the Conservative Party Canadians once knew was finally buried. Last weekend, at precisely the same moment, it rose to walk the earth again.