This essay was begun in anger, last November, when I began encountering people who called themselves Conservatives but who were saying the most awful things about the party’s leader, Andrew Scheer, after he failed to win the October 2019 election. Nearly a year later, I am no longer angry. I am resigned to the fact that Conservatives tend to eat those leaders who don’t give instant gratification. I have also come to appreciate how uncommon the Canadian model of leadership selection is, and how it could be improved so that the macabre feast ends.
The attacks I heard on Scheer were from those frustrated with defeat. The fact that the member of Parliament for Regina–Qu’Appelle had increased the number of Conservative seats and had won the popular vote was not enough for these people, who might benefit from a short history lesson. What was different in 2019 than, say, in 1980, when Joe Clark lost government, was the fact that there were as many within the party who defended Clark as there were who attacked him — whereas in Scheer’s case, one heard almost no defence.
Consequently, Scheer announced his resignation on December 12, rather than face a leadership review. Presumably those who called for blood assumed there would be a long list of star candidates — all better than the former Speaker of the House of Commons, the youngest ever — to replace him. A convention date was set for June, but it had to be postponed to August because of the pandemic. As a result, the Tories had only a lame-duck leader during the past parliamentary session, when the Liberals needed to be held to account on a whole range of issues, not the least being responsible government.
I’m not attempting to defend Scheer or the quality of his judgment. But suffice it to say, he had one great advantage over those who sought to replace him: the experience of defeat. In life, one learns far more from failure than from success. That’s true of most of us. If only parties were willing to hold on to their battle-scarred leaders, they could share in those lessons.
The attacks upon Scheer were part of a long-term tendency among Conservatives to turn on their leaders. Back in 1980, the political scientist George Perlin called this tendency the “Tory syndrome,” in a book of the same name. Perlin noted the party’s poor electoral record following the introduction of conventions and argued that “persistent internal conflict which has focused on or involved the party’s leaders” contributed to poor performances. Bob Coates, a Diefenbaker loyalist and long-time MP from Cumberland–Colchester, also observed this tendency, describing it as the “wanton destruction of . . . leaders in times of adversity.”
The Tory syndrome is almost as old as the Tories themselves. In 1891, Sir John A. Macdonald led his Conservatives to their sixth electoral victory in seven tries, but he died shortly thereafter. He had four successors in the next five years. His third was Senator Mackenzie Bowell, who served as prime minister from December 1894 to April 1896. In January 1896, seven cabinet ministers, led by George Foster, suddenly resigned. Bowell referred to Foster’s group as the “nest of traitors,” and when the traitors quickly returned to cabinet —“like sheep into the fold”— they forced Bowell’s resignation as both party leader and prime minister. The next federal election was just fifty-seven days later; Wilfrid Laurier’s Liberals would form government, even though they lost the popular vote.
When Robert Borden stepped down as prime minister in 1920, the cabinet favoured Sir Thomas White, recently the minister of finance, as his successor, but the caucus preferred Arthur Meighen, because of his oratorical skills in the House of Commons. In the 1925 election, Meighen led the party to the most seats — fifteen more than the Liberals’— and the highest percentage of the popular vote, and it was assumed by all that Meighen would become prime minister. But this was not to be, as Mackenzie King’s Liberals managed to form a minority government with Robert Forke’s Progressives. When Meighen briefly did become prime minister, in 1926, his government was defeated on a “broken pair,” a breach of an informal arrangement among MPs of opposing parties.
In the 1926 election, Meighen had to contend with Howard “Boss” Ferguson, the Conservative premier of Ontario and a former friend. When Ferguson turned on Meighen, the federal party lost fifteen seats in Ontario, enough to give the Liberals power once more. Ferguson’s hostility spilled over into the 1927 convention — the first one the party held. The most dramatic moment came when Meighen gave his farewell address. The delegates loved the speech, but Ferguson went into paroxysms of anger on the platform — a visible symptom of the Tory syndrome.
R. B. Bennett won that inaugural leadership convention, and he went on to run a brilliant electoral campaign in 1930, securing the first Conservative majority since 1911. The bad news was that the country was entering the third year of the Great Depression, which hit Canada harder than any other industrialized country and was compounded by the Smoot-Hawley tariffs imposed by the United States. All things considered, the economy had started to turn around by 1934; the Bennett government had managed the crisis as well as could be expected. But that fall, one of Bennett’s key cabinet ministers, H. H. Stevens, the minister of trade and commerce, not only resigned from cabinet but also established his own Reconstruction Party. The presence of Stevens’s offshoot in the 1935 election resulted in a rout, the Conservatives’ worst until 1993. While the Reconstruction Party won only one seat, it won 8 percent of the -popular vote, depriving the Conservatives of many seats they otherwise would have won.
Arthur Meighen and R. B. Bennett were men of substance with appropriate gravitas. Their successors were worthy men, but they lacked the stature of Meighen and Bennett. The deposing of Bennett, especially, shows the consequences of rashly turning on a leader when times are tough.
In 1942, having tried out two or three leaders and having lost another general election, the party called a convention. With five minutes to go, John Bracken, the Liberal Progressive premier of Manitoba, arrived with his signed papers. There were four other candidates, including, of all people, H. H. Stevens, who had done so much to bring the Tories low in 1935. Bracken won on the second ballot, and the party accepted his unfortunate demand to change its name to the Progressive Conservative Party (the fourth change in five years).
Bracken steered the party to sixty-seven seats in the 1945 election, up from thirty-nine in 1940, and helped restore the Progressive Conservatives in Ontario. Even still, he was pushed out by the old guard, specifically by George McCullagh, publisher of the Globe and Mail. (Bracken once said that he would rather do a hard week’s work on the farm than have a ten-minute telephone conversation with the Toronto bagman.) At the 1948 convention, George Drew, the premier of Ontario, easily won the nomination on the first ballot, beating, among others, John Diefenbaker, who was running for the second time. What were the results in the next election? Drew managed to double the Conservative seat total in Quebec — from one to two. He was less successful in his own province, where the party lost nearly half of its seats and ended up with only twenty-five, its worst showing in Ontario since 1896. Nationally, it was the third-worst defeat in party history.
A convention was scheduled for late 1956 to replace Drew. The outcome was determined decisively on the first ballot: Diefenbaker won 774 of the 1,284 votes cast, or just over 60 percent. Diefenbaker was neither a “renegade in power” (to use Peter Newman’s phrase) nor a “rogue Tory” (as Denis Smith would have it). He was a reforming Conservative in the spirit of Sir John A. Like Macdonald, who inherited an insular party that had been captured by the Family Compact of Sir Allan MacNab and took it mainstream, Diefenbaker broadened what had become a closed-door party of Toronto and Ontario to include all of Canada — including women, those who spoke neither French nor English, and First Nations people.
In 1957, Dief led the party to its first victory in twenty-seven years. And in 1958, the Conservatives won the greatest percentage of House seats — 78.5 percent — of any government. Even in Quebec, Dief won fifty seats, the most since 1882. Indeed, there was far more Diefenbakermania in 1958 than there was Trudeaumania ten years later. But in 1962, the party lost nearly 100 seats as the Laurentian Coalition turned on Diefenbaker. Dief held the Liberals to minority status in the next two elections largely thanks to the Western redoubt he had established and maintained.
In 1966, the distinguished lawyer and parliamentarian Arthur Maloney vied with the journalist and political strategist Dalton Camp to became president of the Conservative Party. “When the Right Honourable John George Diefenbaker enters a room,” Maloney said, “Arthur Maloney stands up.” But after a close vote, Camp won and introduced the policy of leadership reviews after electoral defeats. The result was a bloody beheading that profoundly changed Canadian politics.
At the 1967 leadership convention, Camp and the members of the Big Blue Machine were successful in electing Robert Stanfield, the premier of Nova Scotia. Dief, who had won three federal elections in a row, was humiliated, running fifth on the first ballot. Even George Hees, who did not hold office at the time, placed above him. In his final remarks, where he endorsed Stanfield, Dief pleaded, “Don’t, as the fires of controversy rage around your leader, add gasoline to the flames.”
The main purpose of changing leaders is so that a party will do better in the next election. So what happened in 1968, after Diefenbaker’s beheading, is rather ironic: the Conservatives lost twenty-five seats, their worst showing in fifteen years. In Ontario, they had by far their worst result yet. Back in Prince Albert, Dief described the day as “a calamitous disaster.”
At the 1976 Progressive Conservative leadership convention, Joe Clark placed third on the first ballot, in a field of eleven. On the fourth ballot, he went up the middle and won to succeed Stanfield. Clark formed a minority government in 1979 — the only person ever to defeat Pierre Trudeau — but lost the following year.
While Clark and Brian Mulroney seemed to get along, their supporters did not. And when Clark lost in 1980, there were cries to replace him. Veterans of the hard days contend that the subsequent leadership review contributed to bad feelings without ensuring a sound process. Another convention was held in 1983, with a field of candidates that included both Clark and Mulroney. This time Clark was first on the first ballot but slipped to second on the fourth. Mulroney became leader.
Brian Mulroney led the Conservatives to two successive majority governments, the best showing of any Conservative since Macdonald. This contributed to an overall positive feeling, so much so that in 1986 a dinner was held in honour of Sean O’Sullivan, the former Hamilton–Wentworth MP who had gone on to become a priest. “The room was full of Tories who were celebrating something rare in the party: forgiveness,” O’Sullivan wrote. “A lasting peace was declared.” Of course, it is a lot easier to forgive and keep the peace when you’re winning majority governments.
One of Mulroney’s great contributions to Parliament was how he kept the caucus involved even when his party was down in the polls. But in the early ’90s, the government and the prime minister became increasingly unpopular, and Mulroney stepped down. Not surprisingly, fewer candidates threw their hat into the ring at the 1993 leadership convention than at the 1983 convention (five compared with eight). Kim Campbell, the minister of justice, won on the second ballot but went down to ignominious defeat in the general election later that year. The party was reduced to two seats in a 295-seat House. Lucien Bouchard, who had bolted from the party, led the Bloc Québécois to official opposition status, and Preston Manning’s Reform Party captured the Diefenbaker redoubt. The combination of Bouchard and Manning made Harry Stevens’s defection in 1935 look like small potatoes and once again helped bake the Tory syndrome into the party’s DNA.
Following Campbell’s defeat, vicious internal struggles seemed to shift from the decimated Tories to the Liberals. While the supporters of Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin battled each other, the Conservatives were busy just surviving.
In 2003, at the last convention of the Pro-gressive Conservatives, Peter MacKay won on the condition that he would not merge with the Canadian Alliance Party (successor to Manning’s Reform Party). But that same year, after a dismal decade of electoral results, the Alliance and the Progressive Conservative Party finally came together to create the modern Conservative Party of Canada. The following year, there was a leadership convention, which Stephen Harper easily won on the first ballot.
Beginning in 2004, Harper led the party through five elections, winning not only minority governments but a majority in 2011. In 2015, the Conservatives lost, and Harper stepped down as leader. A leadership convention was held in 2017, with more than a dozen candidates. And on the thirteenth ballot, Andrew Scheer won, as he narrowly defeated Maxime Bernier. Rather than staying with the team, Bernier followed in the footsteps of Stevens: he left and formed his own People’s Party. While Stevens wreaked greater havoc on the Conservatives than Bernier did, just imagine what a difference the nearly 300,000 votes that went to the People’s Party would have made in the 2019 election — especially in Quebec.
Despite all of the noise that followed the election, it’s important to remember that Scheer led the Conservative Party to the largest percentage of the total vote in 2019 and an increase in seats. He gained seats in Ontario, and though he lost a few in Quebec, he still won more than most Conservative leaders have (and he might not have lost any had Bernier not defected). And once again, the Western redoubt remained firmly in place.
Those who attacked Scheer — so bitterly that he chose not to face a formal review — must have assumed that someone better would appear. Yet the final field of candidates was small, and none of the “dream candidates” bothered to enter the race. It would seem the Tory syndrome is just as bad for potential leaders as it is for denounced ones.
Right before Diefenbaker won successive elections in 1957 and 1958, Pete Seeger wrote “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” A circular song that summarizes the cost of war, it begins:
Where have all the flowers gone, long time passing?
Where have all the flowers gone, long time ago?
Where have all the flowers gone?
Young girls have picked them every one
When will they ever learn?
When will they ever learn?
More and more, this song brings to mind the Canadian Conservative tradition. As Seeger lamented about humanity’s tendency to self-destruct, “When will they ever learn?”
While there were real policy differences between Boss Ferguson and Arthur Meighen, most leadership changes over the past 125 years have been driven by more superficial and myopic considerations. In that sense, the Tory syndrome is this country’s political equivalent of the Maple Leafs phenomenon: the fans in the loyal base are so desperate for a winning season that they continue to fire coach after coach without looking inward. Considering decades of disappointment, it is time for the Conservatives to truly shake things up — not to develop more policy positions, although that too is needed, but to try a different method of choosing a leader.
When Robert Stanfield was leader of the Pro-gressive Conservatives, from 1967 to 1976, he asked me to review the operations of the Office of the Leader of the Opposition. In doing so, we also looked to the United Kingdom, where Ted Heath was leader of the opposition at the time. We learned a great deal then that’s even more relevant now.
Tories in Canada would do themselves a favour if they had another look at the U.K.’s Conservative Party. Yes, Disraeli complained about the “greasy pole” of British politics. But since 1895, the third Marquess of Salisbury and his successors, right up to Boris Johnson, have had more security in office than Conservatives here. They’ve also been far more accountable to caucus than our party leaders.
The lack of accountability here stems in part from the legacy of the 1919 Liberal leadership convention, which grafted an American-style, general membership convention onto our parliamentary system. It wasn’t a natural fit. Mackenzie King informed his caucus that he was answerable not to them but to a convention — which did not reconvene for twenty years. The Conservatives followed the Liberals’ example seven years later. As the historian Christopher Moore has argued, the result has been a century of political leaders who are largely unaccountable to either convention or caucus.
Both parties have accepted, at the federal and provincial levels, that neither the caucus nor the general membership has any power over the leader once that leader is chosen — unless an election is lost. Perhaps there’s a reason our hybrid method of choosing leaders has not caught on anywhere else, not in Australia nor Ireland nor New Zealand nor the U.K.
Historically, in Westminster, the caucus chooses its leader, because that leader needs to have the backing of the bulk of MPs. More recently, the Conservative caucus narrowed the field down to two candidates — Jeremy Hunt and Boris Johnson — for consideration by party members, who made the final decision one month later. That timeline limited the number of “instant” Tories who could sign up. This latest British method answers the call for ordinary members to have a say, while leaving the leader accountable to his or her caucus, which is in turn accountable to the people.
And in the process of looking at how a leader is chosen, some attention should also be paid to restoring a level of civility and respect. The Conservative Party of Canada must learn to throw water on the flames of controversy surrounding a leader, rather than gasoline. Otherwise, it risks another twenty-year drought, just like the one that followed the ouster of Bennett.
It’s time to reject the Mackenzie King and U.S. model in favour of one that’s more along the philosophical lines proposed by Michael Chong in his Reform Act, which he first introduced in late 2013. A backgrounder for the act reads:
The proposals in the Reform Act would reinforce the principle of responsible government. . . . Since Confederation, numerous and gradual changes have eroded the power of the Member of Parliament and centralized it in the party leaders’ offices. As a result, the ability of Members of Parliament to carry out their function has been curtailed by party leadership structures. The Reform Act proposes to address this problem by restoring power to elected Members of Parliament.
Let’s reduce the alarming concentration of power in the hands of party leaders. Let’s transform members of Parliament from a group of “nobodies,” to quote Trudeau père, to legislators who are responsible to their electors — and who can truly hold their leaders to account in victory and defeat.
On August 23, after a short technical delay with the count, Erin O’Toole was chosen as the new leader of the Conservative Party of Canada, after finishing fourth in 2017. As the sitting MP for the Ontario riding of Durham, he has the distinction of being the first Conservative leader from Canada’s most populous province since George Drew stepped down over sixty years ago.
I’d encourage O’Toole to pay heed to some advice that Sir John Thompson, our fourth prime minister, received in the 1890s. A friend of his wrote to explain that when travelling by dogsled, you always hang the harnesses up at night so the dogs don’t chew them up. The difficulty for the Conservative Party in the late nineteenth century was that the sled dogs had got at the harnesses. The difficulty continues today. Erin O’Toole’s true challenge will be to keep the harnesses hung up at night — to find a cure for the Tory syndrome — while returning some power to the democratically elected representatives he now leads.