The most frustrated politician in Ottawa these days has to be Andrew Scheer.
He has been leader of the opposition for six months, long enough to have moved out of the shadow of his predecessor, Stephen Harper, and long enough to put his own stamp on the Conservative party.
It’s also been long enough to build some momentum, as the majority Liberal government, suffering through the mid-term doldrums, keeps offering its opponents a menu of tasty issues – from tax reform and trade (NAFTA and China, for starters) to the conflict-of-interest struggles of Finance Minister Bill Morneau and the woes of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls.
But the Conservatives have no momentum at all. They have no traction (although neither, as yet, have the New Democrats under their new leader, Jagmeet Singh, but he’s only been on the job for two months). If an election were held today, the outcome would mirror the results of the October 2015 balloting.
According to last week’s Nanos Research poll, the Liberals under Justin Trudeau have the support of 40 per cent of the electorate (up just a hair from the 2015 results) while Scheer’s Conservatives are at 31 per cent (down one percentage point).
No one could accuse Scheer and his leadership team of lack of effort. They have been relentless on chosen issues. They have pounded Morneau with a ferocity that no cabinet minister has suffered since the heyday of John Diefenbaker, when the old Chief delighted in demolishing Liberals in Lester Pearson’s cabinet.
Columnist Chantal Hébert calculates that Scheer and his caucus have fired more than 600 questions at Morneau since September, an average of better than 15 rockets per question period.
They have adopted the old Diefenbaker attack formula: if you make allegations often enough and loudly enough, people will start to believe you, even if you have no evidence aside from suspicion – and once you have wounded the minister, demean his character and demand his head, which Scheer did to Morneau last week.
There may be a couple of reasons why Scheer’s tactic is not moving the needle in the opinion polls. First, Canadians , as fascinated (or horrified) as people everywhere, by the high-stakes drama unfolding daily in Donald Trump’s Washington, may not be paying more than cursory attention to the goings-on in the Ottawa bubble.
Second, it is possible that Canadians are losing interest in politicians who are great on the attack but not so great when it comes to putting up constructive ideas of their own (as Patrick Brown seems to have discovered in Ontario).
Whatever the reason, the polls hint of danger ahead for Scheer. According to Nanos Research, which political insiders regard as reliable, while Trudeau’s popularity has declined at midterm, he still leads Scheer by more than 20 points when Canadians are asked which man they would prefer to lead them. And 54 per cent say they would be prepared to consider voting Liberal as opposed to 38 per cent who say they would not.
Under Scheer, the Conservatives are losing serious ground to the Liberals in Quebec where, according to a Léger Marketing poll, the Liberals are nearly 30 points in the lead.
In an October by-election, the Conservatives lost Lac-Saint-Jean, perhaps their safest seat in the province, to the Liberals.
Today, voters go to the polls in four federal by-elections, one of them in Battlefords-Lloydminster in Scheer’s home province of Saskatchewan.
It is an important test for the new leader. Battlefords-Lloydminster should be a walk in the park for the Conservatives. They held the seat with 61 per cent of the vote in 2015. But the Liberals are targeting the riding, and it could be in play today.
Some loss of the support to the Liberals, who placed third two years ago, is entirely possible and would be an embarrassment to Scheer. Loss of the seat, while barely conceivable, would be a huge humiliation.