Is NS Tory leader wannabe John Lohr Maxime Bernier in waiting?

No longer Conservative but even more conservative Maxine Bernier.

This column originally appeared in the Halifax Examiner August 27, 2018.

Will Nova Scotia’s Progressive Conservatives pull a federal Conservative Party and stagger out of their October 27 leadership convention hopelessly divided between their regular right-wing whingers and their ultra-right-wing whiners?

Could PC leadership hopeful John Lohr — he of the Northern-Pulp-protesters-were-paid, free-speech-for-fanatics, let’s-build-more-statues-to-Edward-Cornwallis, frack-yes(!) wing of the party — emerge as the leader of a breakaway faction of Trump-ish troglodytes. Or — worse — might he ultimately become the PC party’s neither-nor compromise choice as leader after the perceived front-runners batter each other into submission?

If Nova Scotia’s PCs hope to form government after the next provincial election, they would do well to pay close attention to how the coming year unfolds for their federal colleagues — and how it is already unraveling.

On Thursday, as the federal Conservatives kicked off their policy conference in Halifax, MP Maxime Bernier shocked Canada’s political world by announcing he was quitting the Conservatives to form his own breakaway political party to compete in next year’s federal election.

In May 2017, Bernier — a former minor-player Stephen Harper-era cabinet minister who leans libertarian — lost his bid for the Tory party leadership to current leader Andrew Scheer. He lost by the narrowest of margins — 50.95 to 49.05 per cent — on the 13th ballot, after having led on every one of the first 12 ballots. To add insult to injury, party officials immediately destroyed all the ballots, preventing even the possibility of a recount.

In the little over the year since, Scheer has done his best to marginalize Bernier. And Bernier has done his own, even better best to make life impossible for his leader.

In June, for example, Bernier posted a chapter from his incendiary book-in-progress, Doing Politics Differently: My Vision for Canada, on his website. In it, he blamed his defeat on Scheer-supporting “fake Conservatives.” In retaliation, Scheer stripped Bernier of even his minor critic’s role as shadow minister of science and technology.

Bernier, who’d already used social media to raise his personal profile among the party’s fringiest right-wing fringes — insulting, for example, one black Liberal MP by saying she believed “the world revolves around [her] skin colour” — then took to Twitter to challenge his party’s less-than-“REAL-Conservative” stances on immigration, supply management and other right-wing dog whistles.

Stoking the fires of division in the lead-up to last week’s policy convention and all but inviting his caucus colleagues to give him the boot, Bernier suddenly pulled even that cleansing possibility out from under the party by announcing his unilateral decision to form his own party.

Bernier didn’t just disrupt the convention, of course. He has also tossed his now-former party’s prospects for success in the next federal election into the dumpster and lit a match. And then jumped into the inferno himself.

Political parties tend to be composed of uneasy coalitions of people of varying shades of ideological and political purity, each continuously contending and compromising while they try to win political power and promote their own agenda.

With the exception of the Liberals — who exist primarily to win power and are elastic and agnostic when it comes to policy — political parties in Canada seem to come together and split apart on a regular basis.

The reality, however, is that they can’t win without coalescing, without one side or the other sublimating their grander ideological ambitions, at least for a time, in order to win power and achieve at least some of their less grand goals.

While John Lohr isn’t likely to win broad support with his far-right platform, he could become a serious disruptor if he attracts a significant minority of votes — encouraging the party’s radical right to press for more influence over policy — or if he becomes the delegates’ reluctant default third option. Current front-runners Cecil Clarke and Tim Houston have spent much of the campaign attacking one another personally, so their supporters might find it difficult to line up behind their chief rival, thus opening the door for the personally affable if politically incorrect Lohr.

Which would be a disaster for the party, and the province.

Under former leader Jamie Baillie, the PCs had positioned themselves as a future, modestly right of centre government-in-waiting, thanks to their limited but strategic success in the 2017 provincial election.

With Stephen McNeil’s Liberals daily failing to demonstrate they deserve a third term and with the NDP still struggling to bring its own divided supporters back together after the Dexter era, the post-Baillie PCs should be within striking distance of governing again.

But can they? Or will they do a Bernier on their dreams?

A version of this column originally appeared in the Halifax Examiner. To read the latest column, please subscribe.

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