Choose Your Own Adventure: Conservatives of Canada edition 


A newly announced alliance between Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberals and Canada’s New Democrats has upended the political landscape. Everyone has a theory about what happens next, including how the arrangement will influence a Conservative leadership race filled to the brim with its own drama.

Trudeau and his merry band of Liberals scored a big win. As long as they hold up their end of the bargain, they can govern in peace. The brinkmanship that can sow chaos in a minority parliament has been taken mostly off the table.

The day the deal went down, Labor Minister Seamus O’Regan happened to be at the table for high-stakes negotiations between Canadian Pacific Railway and striking workers. Hours after his boss struck a tentative deal with NDP leader Jagmeet Singh, the rail strike was over. Both deals were on the minister’s mind when POLITICO got him on the line.

O’Regan’s reaction was typical of the Liberal state of mind.

“Especially with the mood I’m in right now, stability and certainty are very attractive to me,” O’Regan told POLITICO. “And I think they’re very attractive to a lot of Canadians. The world has enough uncertainty going on.”

But for all the celebrating on one side of the aisle, the other side was downright gleeful. It might seem counterintuitive, but a left-wing governing coalition is music to the ears of Conservatives who want another chance to rule the roost in Ottawa.

The Tories — our Anglophile shorthand for Conservatives — smell blood after more than six years in opposition. Many are convinced a relatively stable left-wing agenda is actually their ticket to victory in Canada’s next election.

Conservatives have plastered the internet with heated rhetoric about backroom deals and “backdoor socialism” — but when Trudeau revealed news of a deal with the NDP (what’s known, technically, as a “confidence and supply agreement”) that could keep his minority government in power until 2025, they were high-fiving behind closed doors.

The Conservatives, meanwhile, are revving up their third leadership race in five years. The last two Tory leaders won Canada’s popular vote in 2019 and 2021 but still couldn’t topple Trudeau. The next leader badly needs a win.

POLITICO took a straw poll of Tory operatives who mostly agreed the Liberal-NDP deal won’t alter the dynamics of the race, which will determine a new permanent leader in September. But after the winning leadership candidate raises their arms in triumph, the fun really begins.

How long will they have to unite the party before the next national election? And can they possibly keep the conservative coalition on the same page? How popular will the Liberal-NDP pact be with voters? Who will Tories even face when the polls open? Will Trudeau run again or take up residence beside a beach in Tofino? There will be many crossroads moments that could define Canada’s political landscape over the next three years.

It’s going to be a wild ride. Follow along and choose your own adventure:

The beginning

Despite the handshake, New Democrats are not formally a part of the Trudeau government. They won’t sit at the Cabinet table or be directly accountable for how their priorities are implemented. But they’ve agreed to support the Liberals until 2025. However, both Trudeau and Singh have made clear: Either party can walk away from the deal at any time.

If the Liberals sense an opportunity, they can always call an election to secure a majority of seats. If the NDP isn’t satisfied with progress on the policies Trudeau has promised to champion, they can abandon the deal. How long it holds has consequences for the Tories, whose fate could hinge on having enough time to build an electoral juggernaut.

If you think the deal will last until 2025, keep reading.

If you think the deal will fall apart sooner, skip to A DEAL IN TATTERS.

Scenario: A deal that lasts

Three years have passed. The NDP did not pull the plug on the deal. Liberals did not call a snap election in a bid to win a stronger mandate.

One of the tallest orders for the next Tory leader is to unify the party.

There was bad blood early in the leadership race between the populist frontrunner, Pierre Poilievre, and two of his moderate competitors, Patrick Brown and Jean Charest. But the NDP-Liberal pact created time for the new Conservative leader to mend fences and soothe egos.

The goal, as one Conservative told POLITICO: “Build a strong team. Organize the party base. Plan a convention to unite and prepare.”

But did they succeed?

If you think the winner successfully unites the Conservatives, skip to LONG-TERM UNITY.

If you think the party will split into angry factions, skip to FRACTIOUS FACTIONS.

Scenario: A deal in tatters

The date is Oct. 16, 2023, and MPs are back from a Thanksgiving break. The Liberal-NDP deal is 18 months old, and New Democrats are restless.

The terms of the two-party agreement called for dental care to be partially launched in 2022, and a pharmacare bill that would roll drugs into Canada’s public healthcare system was coming due before the end of the year.

Dental care got caught up in bureaucracy and Liberals are dithering on pharmacare, afraid of angering drug companies after years of tense relations. So the NDP pulls the plug.

Singh hits the campaign trail and relentlessly hammers on broken Liberal promises. The Tories aren’t letting the NDP off the hook, however, still lumping them in with the government’s record.

Before the Liberal-NDP deal, most Conservatives were betting that the Liberal minority government would fall before the end of 2023. The failure of the new accord gives the new leader even less time to make peace with rivals and persuade a big — and expanded — tent of new members to back a winner they fiercely campaigned against only months earlier.

Can the new Tory boss keep it all together?

If you think the winner successfully unites the party, skip to SHORT-TERM UNITY.

If you think the party will split into angry factions, skip to FRACTIOUS FACTIONS.

Scenario: Long-term unity

The Tories hadn’t won an election in more than a decade, but as a united party they are riding high and counting on winning.

Stephen Harper pulled off the feat three times, including a lone majority in 2011. But just because the Tories are primed to fight an election on a Liberal-NDP deal they detest, doesn’t mean it’s a slam dunk — even up against an increasingly tired Liberal government. If voters actually like the accord, that won’t help the Conservative cause.

If voters hate it, different story.

If you think the Liberal-NDP deal ends up hurting those parties, skip to THE DEAL STINKS.

If you think the deal is popular with the voting public, skip to A WINNING DEAL.

Scenario: Fractious factions

Divided conservative voters don’t win elections.

Even though the Progressive Conservatives under Brian Mulroney won the 1988 election, a rebellious faction split off into the populist Reform Party. The PCs won two seats in 1993, and the Reformers nearly achieved status as the Official Opposition. But Liberals won three majorities while the right was divided.

With Poilievre squabbling with Charest and Brown over who’s the most conservative candidate and who’s the least marketable in a general election, the divide was real. Poilievre harped on Charest and Brown for being Liberals in sheep’s clothing. Charest and Brown insisted the combative Poilievre is unelectable in a general election. The backroom sniping repeatedly spilled onto Twitter. No one could remember a race this vicious.

When that 2022 leadership race got heated, the party did not splinter. But on the campaign trail things fall apart. The party’s volunteers abandon local campaigns. The leader can’t fill a room. Suburban voters turn away. A fourth-straight loss to the Liberals spells disaster.

The Conservative Party is truly coming apart at the seams for the first time in 40 years.

If you’re looking for a different outcome, head back to THE BEGINNING.

Scenario: Short-term unity

Harper’s leadership proved a united center-right party could eventually topple center-left Liberals. He catered to social conservatives just enough to maintain their support, naming an ambassador for religious freedom but steering clear of any effort to curtail abortion rights. He also offered broadly moderate policies to seat-rich suburbs and boutique tax credits galore, tailored to subsets of voters.

The new leader of the Conservatives stands a decent shot at victory if they can repeat his feat. They didn’t have much time to come together, but they earned the trust of caucus and kept grassroots grumbling at a minimum. But it’s now a tenuous peace, and the party isn’t home free yet. Much of their success will depend on their main opponent.

Is it Trudeau? Or is it a brand-new Liberal leader?

If you think Trudeau will lead the Liberals into the next election, skip to TRUDEAU GOES FOR FOUR.

If you think the Liberals will move on to a new leader, skip to TRUDEAU BOWS OUT.

Scenario: The deal stinks

The political futures of both Singh and Trudeau rest on the success or failure of their deal.

Three years later, voters hate the two-party pact. Some never got over the original sin that it was negotiated in secret. Others are now thinking more about reducing the deficit than increasing spending. The most progressive voters see the rollout of the new programs as slow and unwieldy.

Trudeau insisted from the start that he’d run again, but the prospect has grown less likely as the Liberal-NDP deal turned out to be a dud — and his popularity has tanked in the polls.

Despite the bad reviews, Trudeau is still holding onto power. But the jury is still out on his future. Speculation in the nation’s capital is that he’ll step down as prime minister before the deal expires in 2025.

If you think Trudeau will lead the Liberals into the next election, skip to TRUDEAU GOES FOR FOUR.

If you think the Liberals will move on to a new leader, skip to TRUDEAU BOWS OUT.

Scenario: A winning deal

Voters love the deal. Sure, the details of pharmacare and dental care are complicated, but polls have shown that cheaper drugs and healthy gums for the masses are a slam dunk for whoever gets the credit.

But who gains most? Trudeau or Singh? Most analysts point out that junior partners in similar arrangements rarely benefit from policy victories. The governing partner gains the most.

At the provincial level, both the British Columbia Greens in 2017 and the Ontario NDP in 1985 suffered that fate.

Singh faced a difficult balance in opposing a government he propped up for years. His shot at real power — as in, the prime minister’s office — was never in the cards. Voters liked him, but only as a rabble rouser who pushed government for more — not as the guy at the head of the Cabinet table. The next election was Trudeau’s to win or lose.

Trudeau is riding high, but it’s also been 10 years and that fresh face isn’t so fresh anymore. He now has some challengers within his party bucking at the chance for their own glory. Ottawa Playbook is full of rumors that he’ll step down as prime minister before the deal formally expires in a few months. Still, Trudeau insists he’ll run again, a choice made easier since the two-party deal is a winner.

If you think Trudeau will lead the Liberals into the next election, skip to TRUDEAU GOES FOR FOUR.

If you think the Liberals will move on to a new leader, skip to TRUDEAU BOWS OUT.

Scenario: Trudeau goes for four

Conservatives are licking their chops at the chance of another showdown with Trudeau, led by a new face who’s got them marching in the same direction.

The only prime minister in Canada’s history to win four elections in a row was Wilfrid Laurier. Trudeau’s father won three, lost one and then came out of retirement to win another.

Trudeau would make history — and never underestimate the power of ego. But he has more baggage than ever, more voices inside the party hoping he’ll step away, and more voters thinking a decade is long enough for one man to hold the job.

Does he have a shot against an energized Tory leader?

Read THE EPIC CONCLUSION to find out.

Scenario: Trudeau bows out

On Jan. 2, 2025, Trudeau walks up to the podium and addresses the nation: He’s out.

It isn’t clear who’ll take over, though. Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland is seen by many as the heir apparent, but three more years of deficit spending and a national debt well over C$1 trillion have whipped up anxiety in the suburbs that form the centerpiece of any Liberal victory. Maybe too much anxiety.

Others prefer Mark Carney, a former central bank governor in Canada and the United Kingdom who has had the advantage of being out of politics but still in the public eye. And Anita Anand is riding high too, after delivering on an ambitious Covid vaccination campaign, taking on a toxic military culture and rebuilding Canada’s Armed Forces with oodles of new cash. Still, others are throwing their hats in the ring.

Will the winner campaign on Trudeau’s legacy? Or will they reshape the party, same as he did more than a decade earlier? Can the new boss keep Trudeau’s biggish tent intact?

What is clear is that it’s a change election, with fresh faces from Canada’s two biggest parties at the next trip to the polls.

But who will replace Trudeau? And how will the 2025 election play out?

Read THE EPIC CONCLUSION to find out.

Scenario: The epic conclusion

We’ve all had a lot of fun here today, but you can’t possibly expect that looking three years out, and with this many variables, we’re going to have that answer. Political prognostication in 2022 is a lot like climate change: the broad trends are clear, but the chaos is still shocking.

The contours of the next election are sharpening. The confidence and supply agreement will play a significant role in the next campaign. No matter who wins the Tory leadership, they’ll spin the Liberal-NDP deal as an unelected, unaccountable, undemocratic coalition.

Liberals will run on their record. They’ll insist they’ve brought millions out of poverty, protected vulnerable people and businesses in the pandemic, and introduced transformative social policy like subsidized national child care — and maybe dental care and pharmacare.

The NDP will say they made Parliament work, pushing the Liberals into uncomfortable terrain for the good of the country. The Bloc Québécois will counter that their province has been neglected by national parties that don’t understand its distinctness.

Conservatives have failed three times to beat Trudeau, and their party sits at a crossroads. Melanie Paradis — the director of strategic communications to the last leader, Erin O’Toole — wrote in Ottawa Playbook that local volunteers were way down on the 2021 campaign. Those grassroots members didn’t show up. When Playbook asked a couple dozen strategists to define the grassroots, there was no clear consensus on who they even are.

Toronto Mayor John Tory, a veteran of the old Progressive Conservative Party, told Playbook in his city hall office that leadership candidates should spend less time attacking each other and focus their attention on what they collectively stand for. “What is the soul of that party?” he asked. “I don’t think it knows.”

Paradis, for one, says the party should spend as much time proposing as it does opposing. When Liberals and New Democrats unveiled their plan to make drugs and dental cheaper for people, Conservatives lashed out at the cost without offering an alternative. “We have to offer solutions,” she wrote in Playbook. “We need to say, ‘OK, here’s how we can do this without bankrupting the country.’”

Pierre Poilievre is proposing things. At a shawarma shop in London, Ontario, he championed cryptocurrency as an alternative for Canadians who are skeptical of the politicians who regulate the financial industry and the bankers who make it tick.

Critics say that crypto is an unstable currency that could ruin the finances of casual investors. Poilievre’s crypto-advocacy and soaring rhetoric about government overreach will likely turn off a lot of voters. But clearly, he’s also tapping a rich vein of support.

The seven-term MP who represents suburban and rural Ottawa also cozied up to the trucker convoy that settled in Ottawa for more than three weeks. When the truckers incessantly honked their horns and shut down most of downtown Ottawa, Poilievre embraced them — even if most Canadians told pollsters they thought the convoy went too far.

It might be impossible for Poilievre’s rivals to stop him. He’s filling banquet halls on short notice barely a month into his leadership bid. His supporters aren’t calling it a campaign; they’re calling it a movement.

No matter who wins, the next leader will have up to three years to unite the party’s unwieldy blue tent and take on the Liberals.

The party’s success rests on a key question: Can the next leader galvanize the party without alienating the rest of the country?

That’s for our next choose your own adventure.


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