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opinion

No matter how you slice it, Pierre Poilievre’s victory in the Conservative leadership election was overwhelming: 70.7 per cent of the vote, 330 out of 338 ridings, the most crushing mandate for any Conservative leader in the history of such elections.

The result is not just to confirm his own leadership – he has no rival now, nor is there any base from which a rival might emerge – but to erase all other distinctions within the party. It is no longer possible to speak of Red Tories versus Blue Tories, or of the regional divisions that once bedevilled the party. It is the Pierre Poilievre party now.

Well of course it is. Comparisons, even to the recent past, are pointless, because it is not the same party – quite literally. As of June 3, the cutoff date for new members in the leadership race, the party had 678,708 members. As of Dec. 31, 2021, it had 169,705. Roughly 509,000 of the party’s current membership, in short, only joined the party in the past few months: They outnumber the existing members by three to one. The party has not just been made over – it has been taken over.

Of these, 311,958 were signed up by Mr. Poilievre’s campaign, about 74 per cent of all members signed up by the various leadership contenders. By definition, these are not the sorts of people who would previously have been interested in party politics. They would have been attracted by the candidate’s talking points, the most reliable applause lines at his rallies, the messages hammered home relentlessly throughout his campaign: no more vaccine mandates, cancel the carbon tax, fire the Bank of Canada governor, give you back control of your life. (How? Well, by getting rid of vaccine mandates.)

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In the end, 417,987 party members cast valid votes, about 61.5 per cent of the membership. Even if not one of the party’s pre-existing members had voted for him, then, Mr. Poilievre would likely have had enough votes to win on the first ballot, just from among the new sign-ups. Still, he appears to have done well enough among the pre-existing membership: about 57 per cent, by my math, assuming turnout was the same for both groups.

New members or old, what unites Conservatives in their present mood is a desire to be represented by a pugilist, someone who will not back down or apologize but take the fight to the hated Liberals. After 18 years in the political trenches, Mr. Poilievre has certainly earned that reputation. His was a campaign designed to make Conservatives feel good about themselves. Where Erin O’Toole admonished the party that it needed to “change and grow,” Mr. Poilievre’s message was that everything was just fine with the party as it was.

The question is whether that is the kind of message that is likely to win a general election. Certainly it’s a hell of a bet. The issue before the party, it is well known, is not so much how many voters it can attract, but where. Too many of its votes are “wasted” racking up huge majorities in rural and Western Canada, while in election after election it narrowly loses ridings in suburban and central Canada.

The premise, then, would appear to be that the voters who were spooked by Mr. O’Toole and Andrew Scheer will be reassured by Mr. Poilievre; that if before suburban and central Canadian voters were worried the gun nuts and the pro-lifers had too much sway in the party, they will be at ease seeing it in the grip of the sorts of extremists Mr. Poilievre has welcomed into its midst; the anti-vaxxers and the bitcoin bros and the anti-WEF loons; that an angry party might not have been their cup of tea but a crazy party will be.

Of course, this assumes the party is even trying to win over those voters. It may be that that is not the strategy: that the party, having found itself unable to win either by turning out the existing base (2019) or expanding it (2021), has decided to appeal to a different group of voters altogether – neither traditional Tories nor centrist swing voters, but the kind of voters who have deserted it for the People’s Party, or who don’t vote at all. They might succeed at that, but if it comes at the cost of alienating the first two groups they might wish they hadn’t.

Ah, but he is about to shift his message to the economy, to the sorts of bread-and-butter issues that are on the ordinary voter’s mind. Perhaps. But memories die hard, and the image formed of Mr. Poilievre in this campaign – an image his political opponents are sure to keep front and centre – will be a hard one to shake.