Jean Charest is not a name that’s much in the news west of the Quebec border. But the former Mulroney-era cabinet minister is back in national headlines with rumours swirling that he may take a run at the Conservative party leadership. Stephen Harper, the puppet master himself of the CPC, is having none of it.
But on Monday (February 28), another seeming obstacle in Charest’s path fell by the wayside. Quebec’s anticorruption unit (UPAC) announced there will be no charges into its investigation of alleged links between financing for the Quebec Liberal Party and granting of government contracts.
The probe was started in 2014, two years after Charest left office following nine years as premier of the province. Charest released a statement through Canada News Wire on Monday stating that “The pursuit of this investigation made no sense and has been for me and my family an injustice that lasted for almost eight years.”
The investigation has been widely viewed by political observers as the proverbial albatross hanging around Charest’s neck and undermining his chances of a political comeback.
His name, for example, was also among possible contenders in 2020 to replace Andrew Scheer. But with Peter MacKay in that race, the field didn’t need another centrist to split the vote. Besides, Harper, whose shadow still hangs over the party like the ghost of Christmas past, was actively opposed to the idea of a former “Liberal” premier taking over the CPC. For many among the current party brain trust, it’s still a nonstarter.
But a fight seems to be shaping up for the leadership of the Conservative party—maybe even the soul of the party—with Charest as the protagonist looking to drag the CPC back to the political centre and Pierre Poilievre, the only declared candidate so far, pushing the party further right.
Things are already beginning to get nasty as Charest met with Conservative MPs in Ottawa on Wednesday to martial support. Jenni Byrne, Harper’s former campaign manager and deputy chief of staff, who has joined Poilievre’s team, took to Twitter on Sunday (February 27) to repost a story from 2010 quoting former ADQ head-turned-Conservative MP Gerard Deltell describing Charest as a “Mafia boss” over corruption allegations into Quebec’s construction industry.
Byrne, it’s worth noting, was among influencers in the party advocating for Erin O’Toole’s removal after September’s election implosion. She was of the view that O’Toole’s mistake was “to run as a liberal—not to the ‘centre’ as some commentators have observed”. She argued that O’Toole’s support for a carbon tax and flip-flops on gun control didn’t differentiate him enough for voters from the Liberals.
There were other factors at play in O’Toole’s election loss, including his coddling of antivax views in the party and his embrace of Trumpian rhetoric on China.
But Byrne is right about one thing. The only thing keeping the disparate pieces of the CPC together these days is their intense dislike of Justin Trudeau. Whether Poilievre is the person to unite them is an open question. It seems laughable given his penchant for amped-up rhetoric. Those backing Poilievre’s candidacy seem to be of the view that all the party needs to do is win back conservative voters who’ve defected to the People’s Party. It’s simple math to them.
But every move to attract those voters back into the fold means losing Red Tories and progressives in the party, which is how Trudeau won a majority in 2015 following the CPC’s embrace of anti-Muslim hysteria.
The view of other CPC insiders is that Charest can bring together social conservatives, progressives, and Quebeckers. Besides the obvious advantage of coming from Quebec, Charest would also make a more cosmopolitan leader than Poilievre for the party, which was resoundingly shut out of vote-rich Vancouver, Toronto, and Montreal in the last election.
Eight high-profile members of the party, including four current and former MPs and one senator, have signed an open letter urging Charest to run. The letter states in part that “We need someone who is able to unite our Party and rally a majority of Canadians in both official languages.” But it’s also worth noting that its signatories do not include anyone from out West.
It does include the signature of the party’s former Quebec political lieutenant, Alain Rayes, who resigned from his parliamentary duties to back Charest’s bid, saying in a statement that “The next leadership race will be decisive for the Conservative Party of Canada.”
The idea that Charest can return the party to its Mulroney-era glory seems a pipe dream to outside observers. “Those days are over,” offers one Liberal party insider.
To be sure, Rayes’s resignation and recent moves by interim CPC leader Candice Bergen to bounce the CPC’s only openly gay member, Eric Duncan, as caucus secretary and Alberta MP Michelle Rempel-Garner from her shadow cabinet role after backing O’Toole, clearly points to a cementing of the party’s tack further right.
The current CPC is not the one Charest came this close to leading before falling to Kim Campbell all those years ago. It’s arguably further right of the party Harper’s Reform took over. On Wednesday, the CPC announced a September date for a leadership vote. The cutoff to sign up members is June 3 and the winner willl be announced on September 10.
It may seem like a lost cause. But Charest adviser Micheal Coates has been quoted in recent media accounts saying that Charest won’t be intimidated by “spin” among those in the party hierarchy who don’t want Charest to run.
Indeed, the CPC would rather avoid a bloodbath that would end up scaring moderates in the fold to the Liberals and splinter the party further. But it seems unavoidable if Charest decides to run.