MONTREAL—This was the week when Conservative front-runner Pierre Poilievre could have sealed his leadership deal.
With a widely acknowledged lead on his rivals, he had two opportunities in the shape of successive leadership debates to step into a more prime ministerial picture frame and start unifying the party and eventually the country behind him.
More than a few CPC members watched the debates for signs Poilievre had the maturity to build bridges, not just firebomb them.
There are Conservatives who, even as they wish for former premier Jean Charest or Brampton Mayor Patrick Brown to become the next leader, still worry that one or the other could end up driving a critical mass of CPC voters to Maxime Bernier’s Peoples’ party.
On that basis, it would not have taken all that much on Poilievre’s part — perhaps just a stroll on the high road — to reconcile a significant number of those whose first choice in the Sept. 10 leadership vote is another candidate with the prospect that the campaign is more than ever his to lose.
At the same time, many Conservative outsiders were curious to find out what the buzz was about with Poilievre, and whether he stacked up as a credible alternative to the current prime minister.
With Justin Trudeau in his third term, it is not just CPC members currently in good standing who could see their way to support regime change on Parliament Hill in the next election.
To both constituencies, Poilievre offered a performance that seemed designed to shore up his reputation as an attack dog even at any cost.
It is not that he stumbled out of the debate gate, but rather that he deliberately opted for the scorched earth approach that has become his trademark in dealing with anyone who challenges his dogmas.
As a result, his performance on the debate podium had raised a barrage of internal and external doubts about his capacity to lead a united Conservative party in the next election and his suitability to become the prime minister.
Let’s take those in order.
Poilievre entered the leadership campaign with the reputation of a take-no-prisoners performer in the House of Commons. But what the debates have shown is that he also does not play well with other conservatives and the diverse factions within the right that they represent.
Over the course of the two debates, he has not had a good word to say about either of his two main rivals (or anyone else for that matter).
On the contrary, he has questioned Charest’s integrity and suggested Brown is a habitual liar. Those are terms of engagement that would not really have their place even in the more adversarial setting of an election debate.
(In passing, it is worth noting that both men secured positions of greater political responsibility on their way to their respective leadership bids than the Ottawa MP, in regions where the CPC desperately needs to make inroads if it is ever to return to government.)
At the same time, Poilievre’s approach to fiscal policy — if it can be called that — was shown to play poorly outside of the alternate universe of his leadership campaign.
By dropping a line in his opening debate statement on Thursday about firing the governor of the Bank of Canada, Poilievre most assuredly won the night’s headlines. But it was a self-defeating victory.
Poilievre’s latest salvo against the Bank of Canada was described as baseless and reckless in The Globe and Mail and called outrageous in the Star. National Post columnist Kelly McParland wrote: “Pierre Poilievre is too big a risk to lead the Conservatives.”
Poilievre’s brain trust will undoubtedly dismiss this barrage of criticism as a sign that his potential advent as leader inspires widespread fear within the so-called mainstream media. To date, why that would be a positive development for the CPC has remained unexplained.
If the promise to fire the governor of the Bank of Canada served any positive purpose for Poilievre on Thursday night, it was as a diversion. As it happens, he really needed one.
Just a bit more than a month ago, the party’s former finance critic was touting cryptocurrency as a means for Canadians “to opt out of inflation.”
With the floor falling from under the crypto market this week, that call does not show well on a leadership candidate who wants voters to believe he is financially literate enough to second guess the Bank of Canada.
Far from feeling energized by the leadership debates, there is growing concern within the ranks of the Conservative party about the self-destructive potential of the leadership campaign.
Those concerns are well-founded.
Poilievre’s debate performances may be doing more damage to the party brand than to his own leadership prospects.
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