This is a week when some predictable chickens — on Canada-U. S. relations and abortion rights — came home to roost for Andrew Scheer.
Significant fractures surfaced between the Conservative leader’s harsh critique of the tentative deal negotiated by the Liberals to replace the North American Free Trade Agreement and the take of leading party figures.
At the same time, he and his Quebec lieutenant were found to have their wires crossed on the approach a Scheer-led government would take on abortion rights.
On two issues that could impact on the outcome of the October election, the Conservative Party scored on its own net this week.
The ink was barely dry on the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement last fall when Scheer claimed he would have negotiated a much better deal.
His overall contention has been that the Liberals were taken to the cleaners by their American and Mexican partners.
This week, that contention was rebutted by none other than Rona Ambrose, the Conservatives’ former interim leader. “I think at the end of the day we came out doing well,” she told Canadian Press on Tuesday. In her view, Canada made up for the concessions it accepted with gains on a variety of fronts.
Along with former cabinet colleague James Moore, Ambrose served on the advisory council that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau set up early on to back the government in the NAFTA renegotiation. Moore has not explicitly contradicted Scheer’s position but nor has he supported it.
With neither of the two prominent Conservatives closest to the USMCA negotiation willing to back him up, Scheer’s bark on a file that is central to Trudeau’s record as prime minister is bound to lack bite.
Ambrose’s comments came as Scheer and Quebec MP Alain Rayes were trying to untangle their respective takes on how a Conservative government would handle the abortion issue.
On Monday, what was supposed to be a good day for the Conservatives in Quebec turned into a public-relations nightmare following the announcement that former Olympic champion Sylvie Fréchette was set to run for the party.
It all started with a Radio-Canada interview in which Fréchette said it was “completely false” to say that Scheer would allow MPs to present private members’ bills designed to restrict access to abortion.
If true, that would have meant Scheer had modified his position. In the past, he had maintained that while a Conservative government would not introduce legislation on abortion, MPs would be free to present private members’ bills and have the fate of their proposals determined by free votes.
As it turns out, that remains the Conservative leader’s position. But Fréchette was not making party policy out of thin air — she was only repeating what Rayes had told her and other Quebec recruits.
“Andrew Scheer has confirmed that he would not allow one of his MPs to put forward an anti-abortion bill,” Rayes told Le Journal de Montréal in an interview published just last Saturday.
Scheer’s Quebec lieutenant initially admitted he had inadvertently misrepresented his leader’s position. He subsequently said he had simply misspoken. By all indications, that did not just happen once.
If Rayes is to have a shot at selling Quebec voters on his leader, he will have to convince them to overlook the latter’s anti-abortion credentials. That will be harder after this week.
The other parties are not about to let voters forget that, until he became speaker of the House of Commons, Scheer was a member of the so-called “pro-life caucus,” a group of MPs actively seeking to force Stephen Harper to revisit the abortion issue.
If he is to still be in contention for the job of prime minister come Oct. 21, Scheer can’t afford to have many more days like the past few.
With voting day less than eight weeks away, the focus is shifting from the inevitable warts of the Liberal incumbent to the merits of the Conservative leader who aspires to take his place.
For many voters, Scheer remains an unknown quantity. More than a few of his more recent supporters are still somewhere between window-shopping and actual buying. It might not take much to spook them away.
On a related note, Andrew MacDougall — a former director of communications to Stephen Harper — suggests in his Maclean’s column this week that Scheer’s signals on protecting abortion rights are too mixed to reassure the progressive wing of his own party.
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And then there is the fact that the Conservative Party is not the only right-wing option on the election market this year.
So far, the Conservatives have largely been successful at containing bleeding to Maxime Bernier’s breakaway People’s Party. But that success rests in no small part on their competitive position in the polls.
For many conservative voters, ousting Trudeau from power is the priority this fall. But Bernier’s siren songs could resonate more loudly over the coming weeks if Scheer slips in the polls from serious contender to probable also-ran.