OTTAWA – Andrew Scheer is facing a test of his leadership after tossing one-time leadership rival Maxime Bernier from the Conservative shadow cabinet for breaking a promise to stop promoting his controversial political manifesto.
Bernier denies he did anything wrong and some of his supporters are even urging him to break away from the Tories and start his own libertarian party.
Bernier has said very little since Scheer fired him as the party’s innovation critic Tuesday night, but he did take to Twitter to suggest he didn’t understand why he lost his portfolio.
“I just want to clarify one thing at this time,” he wrote. “The chapter on (supply management) posted on my website is THE SAME that was publicly available for weeks on my publisher’s website but was taken down when I decided to postpone the book indefinitely. There is nothing new, I did not ‘publish’ it.”
The chapter was originally published in April to market Bernier’s forthcoming book on his political vision for Canada. In it, he took pot shots at Scheer for pandering to dairy farmers in Quebec, accusing him of signing up “fake Conservatives” in the leadership race to prevent keep Bernier and his anti-supply management policy, from winning.
After Scheer and caucus colleagues expressed their disappointment, Bernier promised to shelve the book for now and not further promote it.
And then he posted the offending chapter to his own website on June 5.
“It’s essential when members of our shadow cabinet make a commitment to caucus that those commitments are kept,” Scheer said Wednesday following the party’s weekly caucus meeting.
Bernier attended that meeting but did not come out to speak to reporters.
Conservative MP Tony Clement, who endorsed Bernier during the 2017 leadership race, said Bernier’s choice to post the chapter was a mistake and Scheer took a “difficult but necessary” step in firing him as innovation critic. Clement also blamed the media for trying to make a bigger deal of the issue than it was.
Foreign affairs critic and erstwhile leadership contender Erin O’Toole said he was puzzled by Bernier’s decision but stressed he remains a valued member of the Conservative caucus.
“He has a very important place in the Conservative movement,” said O’Toole.
But some of Bernier’s supporters were incensed and took to social media to call for a revolt against Scheer and to open up discussion of Bernier leaving the Conservatives to start his own party.
“Could Maxime Bernier be persuaded to lead a new party to reinstate progressive Libertarian values including economics, business innovation, societal innovation, Canadian Unity, and free speech,” tweeted Steph Sagar, a Bernier supporter from Toronto.
She called Bernier’s firing “a disgraceful and foolish decision” and said Scheer had lost her support and her money.
The hashtag #IstandwithBernier was relatively busy with traffic in the hours immediately after Bernier’s firing though it had died down by Wednesday afternoon.
Andrew McDougall, one-time communications director to former Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper, wrote in Macleans that the “sacking” of Bernier is a test of Scheer’s ability to keep the party together. He blamed Scheer for failing to ensure Bernier was on side as soon as President Donald Trump started using supply management as his Canadian attack du jour.
The dilemma for Scheer is that Bernier represents a significant part of the Conservative tent — libertarians, who are particularly prevalent in urban areas where the Conservatives must make gains if they are to win in 2019.
While Scheer and O’Toole earned the lion’s share of caucus support during the leadership race (31 MPs endorsed O’Toole, who finished third and 24 endorsed Scheer), Bernier raised the most money, bringing in $2.5 million compared with $989,000 for Scheer.
Bernier also had the first ballot votes of nearly 30 per cent of Conservative members and led the way in seven provinces and two territories. Bernier led Scheer on every ballot but the one that counted, losing on the 13th ballot by a margin of 50.95 per cent to 49 per cent.
The math of those results suggests Scheer made a mistake in firing Bernier, said one tweeter.
“A move that potentially alienates 49% of the Conservative membership is dangerous if Scheer is serious about winning 2019,” said Ontario physician David Jacobs. “I would strongly reconsider.”