OTTAWA — What if Justin Trudeau isn’t the Liberal leader the Conservatives are fighting against come the next election?
That was a key question on the minds of Conservatives after the Liberals and New Democrats unveiled an arrangement that should keep the Trudeau minority government standing until 2025.
While Trudeau insisted on Tuesday he intends to lead his party into the next campaign, speculation that the deal paves the way for him to step down ran rampant among Conservatives who scrambled to divine the implications of the Liberal-NDP maneuver on the workings of Parliament and party politics.
The so-called “confidence and supply agreement” will see the NDP support the minority Liberal government in confidence votes, in exchange for the implementation of measures that have long been central to the New Democrats’ policy agenda, like a national dental care program.
Interim Conservative Leader Candice Bergen slammed the arrangement as a power grab that gives the Liberals a de facto majority to spend billions of dollars and drive the country further into debt.
“I believe it goes to the heart of our democracy,” Bergen said.
“The Liberals and the NDP had and have an obligation to be honest and transparent and tell Canadians this is what they’ve been cooking up, and they didn’t do that. They cannot be trusted.”
The idea that the arrangement is an exit strategy for Trudeau was floated to the Star by several Conservative MPs, all of whom pointed to the math: by 2025, Trudeau will have been in power a decade — or roughly the same length of time as his predecessor, Conservative Stephen Harper.
Had Harper not been defeated in the 2015 election, he likely would have stepped down around the 10-year mark, some said.
In that light, some MPs and party insiders believe the Conservatives need to pivot on two fronts: away from focusing their attacks exclusively on Trudeau, and towards capturing the votes of Liberal supporters who are alienated by the arrangement.
“Conservatives — everywhere — need to start thinking about giving people a reason to vote for us, rather than reasons to vote against another party,” said Andrea Van Vugt, a longtime strategist.
In the House of Commons, Conservatives told the Star, they intend to reach out to New Democrats who they believe would still be keen to force the government’s hand on issues beyond the scope of the arrangement.
Bergen said her party would also reach out to unhappy Liberal MPs. In 2018, the Tories wooed then-Liberal MP Leona Alleslev to cross the floor over two issues that are very much in the spotlight now: the Liberal government’s record on defense spending and its handling of the economy.
Alleslev is now among those considering a run for the Conservative party leadership, and is expected to launch her campaign within days.
While none of the candidates are under the illusion they’d lead the party into a general election campaign anytime soon, the fact that there may not be one for another three years immediately made its way into Pierre Poilievre’s pitch: the party must try to derail the deal, and that can only be done by a leader who is already in the House of Commons.
“I’m the only leader who could launch that effort to mobilize the Canadian people, win the debates and the procedural contests on the floor of the House of Commons, force an eventual non-confidence vote, go to an election and win as I ‘ve always done,’ he said late Monday as word of the deal was emerging.
But Poilievre is not the only sitting MP who is seeking his party’s top job. Leslyn Lewis, Marc Dalton and Scott Aitchison—who launched his campaign over the weekend with a call for more unity among politicians—are also attempting to mount bids of their own.
Among his political achievements, Aitchison counts getting the Liberals to fold a Conservative private member’s bill on bereavement leave into existing government legislation.
But despite his enthusiasm for cross-partisan co-operation, Aitchison said the Liberal-NDP arrangement is bad news for Canadians.
“The consequences of a Liberal-NDP pact could not be clearer: higher taxes, higher inflation, higher prices, and no plan to pay for it,” he said in a statement.
For the candidates who aren’t in the House of Commons — former PC leader and Quebec premier Jean Charest, Brampton Mayor Patrick Brown, Ontario MPP Roman Baber — the urgency attached to how they’d get a seat if they won the leadership race got kicked up a notch Tuesday.
Several MPs pointed to how Jagmeet Singh struggled as NDP leader before he won his own seat in Parliament, or the problems that plagued former Green Party leader Annamie Paul.
Charest has the most caucus support of the three outside candidates, one MP suggested, meaning it would be easier to find someone to potentially step aside to trigger a byelection that would hand him a seat.
The Charest campaign said its focus remains the leadership race.
Others see the three-year window as giving the party some breathing room. The next Conservative leader will have the time to introduce themselves to Canadians, upgrade the party’s operations and develop robust policy ideas well before they head to the polls, something former party leader Erin O’Toole didn’t have the time to do.
Then again, one MP told the Star, having that time will also put more pressure on the incoming leader to perform well in the next election.
There’s also the future of the country to consider, Brown suggests Tuesday in his response to the deal, and that’s why Conservatives need to make sure they pick the best candidate.
“If we elect another leader that cannot break through in suburban Canada and beat the Liberals in their areas of strength, this NDP-Liberal coalition will last even longer beyond 2025,” he said.
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