Quebec emerging as potential hub for Conservative leadership hopefuls

OTTAWA — As contenders for the Conservative leadership continue to jockey into position, several from Quebec are considering a bid despite the party’s mediocre showing in that province in the last election — or perhaps because of it.

Among them: former Quebec premier Jean Charest, current MP Gerard Deltell, former Conservative senator Michael Fortier, businessman and party insider Bryan Brulotte, longtime Quebec Tory Richard Decarie, former Conservative policy staffer Aron Seal and entertainment industry mogul and reality TV star Vincent Guzzo.  

Guzzo, who owns a major Quebec chain of movie theatres and stars in the CBC show Dragons’ Den, said Tuesday the number of potential candidates from the province suggests Quebecers are eager for a Conservative win.

“It says we have made the mistake in the past of saying well, the party is a western-based party,” he said.

“The truth is that there are more similarities between Alberta and Quebec than people think.”

To date, the potential roster is already longer than it was for the party’s last leadership race.

In 2017, Quebec’s Maxime Bernier came within a whisker of winning but lost to Andrew Scheer. The only other Quebec-based candidate in that campaign was Steven Blaney, the former cabinet minister and current MP.

After winning leadership, Scheer spent extensive amounts of time in Quebec, and pushed heavily to gain support there ahead of the October 2019 election. At the outset, the party had hoped to increase its seat count, but saw its campaign go quickly off the rails.

The first stumble came with Scheer’s performance in the first French-language debate, and the party never regained its footing, facing heated challenges to their policy ideas and Scheer’s personal views, including his opposition to abortion and incoherence on same-sex marriage.

The one bright spot was capturing Bernier’s old seat, which he failed to win as leader of his new outfit, the People’s Party of Canada.

But overall, the loss set off a near-riot in some Quebec conservative circles, with immediate calls for Scheer to resign.

Firing his chief of staff, who was heavily involved in the party’s strategy there, didn’t quiet the din. After increasing pressure from Quebec and elsewhere, Scheer stepped down in mid-December pending the election of his replacement, saying he was no longer able to lead the party.

Guzzo said the issue wasn’t Scheer’s views per se, but his inability to clearly articulate them. He said it scared off voters.

He said his experience in business and in entertainment is that politicians are increasingly out of touch, and the Conservatives need to think hard about opting for an insider-type leader once again.

In 2017, a high-profile outsider similar to Guzzo did take a run for leadership. Kevin O’Leary, who had also been a Dragons’ Den star, used similar messaging to try and mount a leadership bid but could never get the grassroots support necessary and dropped out.

Guzzo said he’s no O’Leary, and understands the political machine he’ll need to win the vote. He said he’s talking it over with his family, making calls to the party’s grassroots and its local leaders, and waiting to see who else might emerge from the wings.

“I don’t need to become a politician, but if I’m going to get more of the same old stuff that we’ve been delivering, I’m going to try and change the recipe because that old recipe is not going to work. We’re going to lose again,” he said.

If Charest is among those who does emerge, he’ll face competition from Richard Decarie, who once worked for Stephen Harper when his Conservative party was in opposition, and currently does strategic communications in Quebec.

He, and other social conservatives, feel that Scheer didn’t lose because of his positions, but because he failed to defend them.

He said Tuesday that he can’t stomach the idea of Charest, a former Liberal and Progressive Conservative, taking over, calling it a “slap in the face” to the “true-blue” conservatives who have built up the party in recent years.

“Andrew Scheer is seen as deceiving the social conservatives, yet because he lost the election, the Progressive Conservatives who were involved in the past now want to kill the Conservative party,” he said.

“This is why I am jumping in.”

The Conservatives will elect a new leader June 27.

By: Stephanie Levitz

© The Canadian Press, 2020. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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