It’s been a rough six or seven weeks for most Canadians. Politically, it’s been especially tough time for the Conservative Party and its outgoing leader, Andrew Scheer.
While the House of Commons has been shuttered for weeks due to the pandemic, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has been holding daily press conferences, as have some of his most important cabinet ministers. While the House has resumed reduced operations — a once-weekly in-person sitting and two virtual sittings — the stage is not nearly as large as it was before.
That hasn’t kept Scheer from taking to the airwaves. Unlike most provincial opposition leaders across the country (Alberta’s Rachel Notley being one notable exception), the Conservative leader has been holding regular press conferences of his own.
While Scheer has tried to use that platform to lay out his criticisms of the government’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, he has at times been knocked off-message — for example, by questions about comments made by Derek Sloan, a Conservative MP and candidate for the leadership of the party, regarding the loyalty of Dr. Theresa Tam, the country’s chief public health officer.
Most provincial opposition leaders have kept relatively low profiles, with adjourned legislatures limiting them to press releases, email and social media to get their messages out.
Those efforts are unlikely to boost their popularity — particularly in the face of polling that suggests provincial governments have widespread support for their efforts to contain the spread of COVID-19.
But it doesn’t seem that Scheer’s more active approach is doing him or his party any favours, either.
Conservatives and Scheer down in polls
Three polls conducted in the last two weeks (by Léger, Abacus Data and the Angus Reid Institute) find the Liberals with an average lead of nine percentage points over the Conservatives among decided voters.
That’s a big reversal from where things stood at the end of February and in early March, before COVID-19 was shutting schools and businesses.
On average, the Liberals have seen their support jump by nine points since then, according to these three pollsters. The Conservatives have dropped two points. The Greens also have seen their support drop by two points, while the New Democrats are down four points.
This suggests that all opposition parties have taken a hit, with the NDP taking the biggest one.
But if we compare current levels of support to the October 2019 election, we see that it’s the Conservative Party that has dropped the furthest from the score that matters most.
With an average of 39 per cent, the Liberals have jumped six points since the last election — enough to put them in majority territory. With 30 per cent support, the Conservatives are down four points.
By comparison, the NDP is unchanged at 16 per cent support. The Bloc Québécois is also holding the same level of support it had in the last election.
According to Nanos Research, Scheer’s own personal popularity has dropped in recent weeks.
In its four-week rolling poll ending on March 6, Trudeau was the preferred choice for prime minister of 33 per cent of respondents, against 21 per cent for Scheer. The latest survey, however, has Trudeau at 38 per cent, followed by Scheer at 17 per cent.
That’s a four-point drop for Scheer, while NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh has seen his personal numbers on this question rise to 16 per cent from 12 per cent.
In other words, while the New Democrats seem to be treading water, Singh is in a marginally better position than he was over a month ago. Scheer, on the other hand, is down — along with his party.
A survey by Research Co. conducted in mid-April found that just 25 per cent of respondents thought Scheer would definitely or probably do a better job than Trudeau in handling the crisis. Just over half said he would do a worse job — including 31 per cent of people who voted for him in the last election.
Race to replace Scheer on hold, for now
Were it not for the pandemic, the performance of the Conservative leader would be relatively unimportant because the party would be closing in on the last two months of its leadership race by now. Instead, the pandemic may have extended Scheer’s tenure by forcing leadership contestants to put their campaigns on pause until further notice.
It’s not clear that a replacement would lead to improved poll numbers. The polling from Research Co. did not suggest Canadians were more likely to think that Peter MacKay or Erin O’Toole — the two front runners for the leadership — would do a better job on the pandemic than Scheer.
What happens next in the party’s leadership campaign will be decided soon. The Conservatives set May 1 as the day the party would re-evaluate how the contest should move forward.
The race was scheduled originally to come to an end on June 27. While that date might still be an option in theory, a public event to showcase the new leader in Toronto (which is what the party had planned initially) most certainly isn’t.
Despite (or perhaps due to) the pandemic, members of the leadership race committee are being told by MPs that they want to get the leadership behind them and press on without delay.
There might be an incentive to get the contest over sooner rather than later: while Trudeau’s polling numbers look good right now, some past leaders have found that popularity gained in a crisis can be fleeting.
In the meantime, the political hand that Scheer has been dealt is not a good one. In the context of a national emergency, when the appetite for partisan politics remains low, the question is whether someone else would be able to play it any better.