Wayne Hunt

Can the Tories avoid the fate of Canada’s Conservatives?

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Wayne Hunt has narrated this article for you to listen to.

As the Conservatives edge closer to disaster in the general election, the hunt is on for a historical comparison. Tony Blair’s dispatching of John Major in 1997 was mild compared with what polls say could be in store. Those wondering how bad it could get should look to Canada in 1993, when a Conservative-majority government showed the world just how far it is possible to fall. The similarities are clear.

Brian Mulroney, the prime minister, had seemed to usher in a new conservative era when he was elected in 1984 with an unlikely coalition of voters. He had managed to cross Canada’s equivalent of a Red Wall by winning support in his native Quebec (French Canada had traditionally been the turf of the Liberals). But not enough was done to keep the voters on board. A recession led to cost-of-living pressure which was compounded by constitutional mayhem when Mulroney, sensing the inevitable, resigned in 1993.

A party thoroughly condemned by the electorate needs to show that it has changed

Kim Campbell took charge and hoped to turn things around. She called an election close to the end of the party’s five-year parliamentary term. But a new centre-right party had emerged, calling itself Reform. It was populist, bold, brash, socially conservative and influenced by the Christian right. It took aim at a myopic political class and its message to voters was that it was time to vote down a tired consensus that did not move, either physically or imaginatively, out of the nation’s capital. When the election was called, Reform was at about 12 per cent in the polls. Almost identical, in fact, to Richard Tice’s Reform party in Britain today.

Canada’s establishment is sometimes called the ‘Laurentian elite’ (after the Laurentian mountains in Quebec), and they tended to be oblivious to those outside their bourgeois Toronto-Ottawa-Montreal bubble. The Liberal party of Canada had been the natural political home of these comfortably off bien-pensants for ever. The cycle was only broken when the Conservatives (John Diefenbaker in 1957; Mulroney in 1984) managed to harness discontent in the hinterland.

But in 1993 the Liberal party was led by Jean Chrétien, a millionaire lawyer who somehow contrived to play the class card and portray himself as the li’l guy from a small town in Quebec. He promised financial stability, fiscal restraint and all the rest. It worked. He was swept to power, the separatist Bloc Quebecois became the official opposition – and votes for the brand-new Reform party were concentrated so that they ended up with 52 seats in the House of Commons.

As for Kim Campbell’s Progressive Conservatives, the polls – which had looked extremely bad for them throughout the campaign – had been too kind. They ended up with 16 per cent of the vote, so thinly spread that they went from 169 seats to just two. To this day, it is the worst defeat suffered by any governing party in an advanced democracy. It could, and perhaps should, have been an ‘extinction-level event’. But instead the Conservatives regrouped and were back in power within 13 years. How?

Stephen Harper, who led the Conservative comeback and became prime minister in 2006, was one of the founders of the Reform party. He was elected in that 1993 election, and tried to build on it – but failed to break Reform out of its western Canadian base. He left politics for a spell but returned in 2002 to become leader of a reformed Reform party, now renamed ‘Canadian Alliance’. This was then merged with what remained of the old Conservatives to become, yes, the Conservative party of Canada. Had Reform swallowed the Conservatives, or vice versa? Either way, the right was reunited.

The lesson is that a party thoroughly condemned by the electorate (as Labour was in 2019 and the Tories may well be this year) needs to show that it has changed. Harper managed this by being competent and refusing to be drawn into the culture wars being conducted in the mainstream Canadian media. He was no populist and avoided talk of immigration. He knew that if he did, the Conservatives could not win enough seats.

That was a different era, when the demographics of an ageing society with low productivity levels relative to the United States meant that Canada needed to bring in more working-age newcomers. Many immigrant families instinctively voted for the party that had allowed them to come to the country, which meant the Liberals. To change this dynamic, Harper kept immigration levels high. He also avoided big-ticket constitutional issues and did what he could to keep spending down, including on the military, despite Canada being a Nato member.

‘I’m War – I got conscripted.’

Harper was defeated by Justin Trudeau in 2015. Now voters are turning on Trudeau: his approval ratings are almost as bad as Rishi Sunak’s. The Canadian PM has two more years to go, but his demise looks pretty much as certain as that of the Tories, because Canada’s Conservatives seem to have reinvented themselves yet again, under Pierre Poilievre, another bilingual party leader.

For years, Trudeau’s tactic was to portray his opponents as extremists. But he overreached during Covid, when truck drivers who were protesting vaccine mandates were accused of ‘ideologically motivated extremism’ and had their bank accounts frozen. Poilievre defended them and learnt from it. He knows how to come across as a defender of common sense and puts up homemade videos on subjects such as housing and cost of living. A Conservative-dominated media ecosystem has started to form.

Trudeau’s answer has been to try to portray Poilievre as Canada’s Trump. But this has failed to take hold because the Conservatives keep tight party discipline and a laser-like focus on real-world economic issues. It is too late for the Tories in Britain to draw lessons from Poilievre for this election. But when the time comes to rebuild the party, Canada can be an instructive example.