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Pierre Poilievre, Conservative Party leadership candidate, attends a party barbecue in Calgary on July 9.Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press

So Stephen Harper thinks Pierre Poilievre is the best choice to lead the federal Conservatives, on the grounds that he is the candidate most likely to win the next election.

This is big news. After all, who knows more about winning elections than Stephen Harper: the leader who took a certain Conservative victory in 2004 – the year of the sponsorship scandal – and turned it into a Liberal minority; who in 2006 turned a certain Conservative majority into a Conservative minority; who eked out another minority in 2008 against the historically inept Stéphane Dion; and who, after finally winning a potentially realigning majority in 2011 threw it away over the next four years.

At the end of which – after nearly 10 years in power – he departed with next to nothing in the way of a policy footprint: at least, of a conservative policy footprint. The Harper Conservatives jettisoned every principle that he or they had ever stood for, from democratic accountability to a strong defence to balanced budgets to free markets. And they still won but a single majority in five attempts. They sold their souls, and got nothing in return; swung for the lowest common denominator, and missed. All that remains of Mr. Harper’s legacy, the sole basis for his reputation as an unbending conservative, is his scowl: a petulant Cheshire cat.

So Mr. Harper’s endorsement of Mr. Poilievre is a big deal, especially among those who think Mr. Harper’s example is to be emulated or his judgment is to be trusted. Still, the supposition, apparently widespread, that the most unpopular minister in a deeply unpopular government has now become an unstoppable political phenomenon, based solely on his ability to turn out the anti-vaccine vote, seems to have emerged from the same strange universe in which Mr. Harper is a master strategist and principled conservative.

The news that the number of Conservative Party members had ballooned, in the course of a largely uninteresting leadership race featuring a notably undistinguished field, from roughly 160,000 to 675,000 – some 312,000 of which were signed up by Mr. Poilievre’s campaign – has been widely hailed as a sign both of the party’s health and of Mr. Poilievre’s electability.

Were there any reason to think these new members were representative of the population, or even of Conservative voters, that would be a safe assumption. But as the vast majority seem to have been attracted by Mr. Poilievre’s message – that the government, in league with the Bank of Canada and the World Economic Forum, is watching your every move, and is preparing still greater terrors to come – there is ample reason to doubt it. The party has not expanded its appeal to a broader section of the electorate. It has simply burrowed deeper into a narrow and highly excitable vein of it.

It has, in short, engineered its own takeover by a fringe movement. The convoy supporters and single-issue zealots to whom Mr. Poilievre has successfully marketed himself may be sufficient in number to overwhelm a three-time-loser opposition party, but it is far from clear they offer the kind of base from which to take the country. That’s borne out by recent polling from Angus Reid, among others. Mr. Poilievre does better than his more mainstream rival, Jean Charest, among Conservative and People’s Party voters. He does worse among centrist and Liberal voters: increasingly up for grabs, amid rising discontent with the government, and crucial to the party’s hopes of winning a majority.

If it were just a debate between “turn out the base” vs “broaden the base,” indeed, the matter would appear to have been settled by recent Conservative election losses. Mr. Poilievre’s strategy, on the other hand, appears to be to turn out an altogether new group of potential voters: those who don’t vote. We shall see how well this turns out. The thing about non-voters, after all, is that they don’t tend to vote. Maybe Mr. Poilievre’s vague promises to give them back “control” of their lives will succeed where others have failed, even after the vaccine mandates have ceased to serve as convenient irritants. The leadership vote will be an early test.

But for every voter Mr. Poilievre excites to come out to vote for him, there must be another who is just as excited to vote against him. There can have been few more polarizing political leaders in recent Canadian political history. And if there is one thing ideally suited to the perennial Liberal strategy of stampeding the left-of-centre vote into the Big L corral, it is a polarizing Tory leader. If the Liberals succeeded at painting such relative milquetoasts as Andrew Scheer and Erin O’Toole as scary, heaven only knows what they will do with Mr. Poilievre.

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