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Conservative insiders say these are the 4 biggest challenges Pierre Poilievre will face


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Conservative insiders say these are the 4 biggest challenges Pierre Poilievre will face

OTTAWA — In high school, he was selling Reform Party memberships.

In university, he was a finalist in an essay contest about what he’d do as prime minister.

At age 25, he won an Ottawa seat for the federal Conservatives and 20 years later, he’s still the MP, having served as a cabinet minister along the way, gotten married and is now the father to two children.

And on Saturday, 43-year-old Pierre Poilievre became leader of the federal Conservative party and that of the Official Opposition.

For Poilievre, that’s just a waypoint on the path to a bigger goal: to be prime minister of Canada, which was how he framed a leadership race that from the get-go he dominated.

But to get there, he’ll have to navigate a series of challenges.

The Star canvassed long-time party operatives, Poilievre’s inner circle, and current and former MPs to get their take on the work ahead.

Here’s a look:

Caucus

Former party leader Erin O’Toole was kicked out of the job by his own MPs just 18 months after he’d won the leadership.

It was an internal civil war that had its roots in the way O’Toole campaigned for leadership, and the pivot he made after as he led the party towards the 2021 election.

But during a recent conversation with the Star, O’Toole also put the blame on the pandemic.

Caucus was never able to find a groove in the virtual world that was the pandemic Parliament, and the very topics that divided the country — questions and doubts about vaccines, vaccine mandates and lockdowns among them — also divided caucus.

The 2021 election saw the party lose seats, and some MPs in traditionally rock-solid ridings saw their support plunge with the upswing of attention on the populist People’s Party of Canada, a move they attributed to O’Toole being too moderate in his approach.

It all boiled over to a point where even those who’d previously been big supporters of O’Toole’s turned and voted for his removal. He was ousted on Feb. 2.

Into the fray came interim leader Candice Bergen, a popular MP with Reform party roots, whose chief focus was to reunify the group and get everyone back on the same page.

The mood under her watch lightened immediately, but that doesn’t mean the previous tensions have evaporated.

To an extent, some will now be inflamed anew by the leadership race.

Though Poilievre had the support of a majority of the party’s MPs, there is still a group who backed Jean Charest, demonized at every turn by Poilievre during the race. And some of those MPs denounced Poilievre in turn.

Whether the two solitudes can coexist, and especially because much of Charest’s support is in Quebec, will be something both sides need to figure out.

Poilievre will also have to decide which elected MPs will now be given plum front-bench posts in the Opposition, and manage the hurt feelings of those who end up still in the corner.

Among those to watch for: where he puts leadership rivals Leslyn Lewis and Scott Aitchison, the only other MPs in the contest.

Lewis in particular represents a conundrum, insiders say.

She made history in 2020 as the first Black woman to run for leadership of the party, and finished in a strong third place position despite entering as a relative unknown.

Some of that success was linked directly to her social conservative supporters. Most ended up supporting O’Toole.

But rather than showcase her on O’Toole’s front bench as a political reward for her achievement — and a nod to that wing of the party — she said she was sidelined for her refusal to disclose her vaccination status.

That decision irritated her social conservative base and they’ve rallied behind her this time around too, claiming to have sold thousands of memberships in her name.

But in this campaign, she sought to broaden her base beyond those party members aligned with her anti-abortion position.

She issued a statement that drew criticism for comparing the atrocities of the Holocaust to COVID-19 vaccines. She’s suggested global bodies like the World Health Organization and World Economic Forum are trying to take away Canada’s sovereignty and circulated a conspiracy theory that there’s a condition called “Sudden Adult Death Syndrome” linked to vaccines. There is no such condition.

Ultimately, Lewis finished a distant third in Saturday’s contest, with less than 10 per of the total points available in the race.

Caucus message discipline is essential, not just for team building but to keep a leader from spending time responding to their own MPs’ comments than on the message they want to articulate, insiders say.

Poilievre is not personally immune to those attacks. He’s also leaned into conspiracies about the World Economic Forum, saying he’d forbid any of his ministers to attend.

But to what extent he continues discussing that — or gives his MPs who espouse controversial views prominence — will be an arrow in the quiver of his critics, who already say the federal Conservatives are giving too much oxygen to dangerous ideas.

The Official Opposition Leader’s Office

A knock against former leader Andrew Scheer when he took over the party in 2017 was that he hadn’t done enough thinking around the team he would put in place inside the Official Opposition Leader’s office, and that crew only came together piecemeal.

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Poilievre’s team began planning for the transition ahead of the win.

He will benefit from the fact that staffing levels inside the OLO plummeted in the lead-up to the race, meaning there are vacant posts to fill rather than being forced to fire people.

But an open question about Poilievre is what kind of manager he’ll be.

While he has considerable political experience and savvy, part of managing the OLO is being a CEO — and though he spent time as a cabinet minister in the last Conservative government, the workplace landscape now brings with it new demands.

How he meets them will be crucial to setting the party on a course for victory. And time is of the essence — Parliament will resume on Sept. 20.

He’ll run his first caucus meeting on Monday.

The Party

When Poilievre bailed on the third official leadership debate organized at the last minute by party officials, he was fined $50,000.

Many joked, so what? The money was just going to the party he was about to take over anyway.

The party made over one million dollars on membership sales alone this leadership race, and how that and other funds will be spent is now part of Poilievre’s job.

Much like OLO, a number of party positions have gone unfilled since the leadership race began, so Poilievre will move swiftly to put his own stamp on party affairs.

James Cumming, the former MP who ran the party’s post-election review, said getting the party’s election machine retooled and up and running swiftly is urgent.

“There are 50 seats that can potentially be swung, and tactically you need to start early,” he said in a recent interview.

That includes everything from modernizing the party’s database to refreshing and renewing connections with riding associations.

“Once we get past this leadership race, we can begin building up the infrastructure to form government,” he said.

Getting ready for the next election

His first three pieces of business all flow into a fourth — preparing for the next election campaign.

Mere weeks after O’Toole won leadership in 2020, his team commissioned a study from a British consulting firm to help guide their strategy for the eventual next election.

With a minority Liberal government that could fall at any time, there was no time to waste.

The 2021 campaign returned the Liberals with another minority, and then they signed a deal with the NDP to prop them up until at least 2025 in exchange for action on some key NDP priorities.

But Poilievre can’t bank on having all that time to prepare — there’s no guarantee the deal will last.

There’s the tactical side of the campaign — will Poilievre, for example, give his leadership candidate rival Roman Baber a seat to run in come election time — but there are other pieces that have to get underway quickly.

How Poilievre will introduce himself to Canadians is one.

While much was made of how he’s massively expanded the base of the party — its membership level is now at a record high — poll after poll throughout the race suggests that support has yet to permeate nationally.

No one expects him to “pivot” on policy in the same manner as O’Toole did, but even Tory insiders expect a relaunch of his campaign narratives in a manner designed to appeal to a wide pool of voters.

And he’ll have to move fast to define his narrative before his critics define it for him.

Poilievre has been attacked relentlessly by his rivals for leaning into conspiracy theories about the World Economic Forum, embracing digital currency as a way to opt out of inflation and for the fact some leaders of extreme right-wing movements appear to be in his corner, and he’s not more explicitly shown them the door.

Those concerns exist within his own party, too — some point to the fact the Conservatives are a law-and-order party, and one that believes strongly in the value of institutions, and yet Poilievre sided with the so-called “Freedom Convoy’s” law-defying protest. He also wants to fire the governor of the Bank of Canada.

The Liberals and NDP are watching warily, realizing Poilievre has tapped into existing anger and frustration among voters that could see their own voters turn in his direction.

It’s a delicate balancing act for all politicians — coming up with policies that address people’s real concerns without inflaming the anger further.

“A lot of people who are angry have felt ignored, so how do you acknowledge them without endorsing them?” Andrew MacDougall, a director of communications for former Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper, said on the Curse of Politics podcast recently.

What a Poilievre government would do to address a raft of current issues is also unclear. His campaign policy promises were not extensive or detailed.

There are open questions on his positions on climate change, how he’d deal with the war in Ukraine, badly-needed funding and potential reform of the health-care system and reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples.

As Poilievre said in his victory speech Saturday: “tonight begins the journey.”

Stephanie Levitz is an Ottawa-based reporter covering federal politics for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @StephanieLevitz

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