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​The Conservative Leadership Race Is Totally Sick, but Not in the Ironic Sense

The Conservative Party of Canada is coming down with a wicked case of Tory Syndrome, and the condition is probably terminal.
October 14, 2016, 1:42pm

It's a visual metaphor. Photo via Twitter.

Have you ever nursed delusions of grandeur? Is your imagination fired by visions of making Canada great again? Would you like to live forever with your hero Robert Stanfield in Conservative Valhalla? And do you have a hundred grand to blow on a personal vanity project?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, then do I have a deal for you: one federal party, freshly out of government, with an all-access pass to the belt-busting Alberta barbecue circuit. There are approximately 80 people running to become leader of the Conservative Party of Canada and the leading favourite right now is "someone else." That someone else could be you!

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Somebody please do this. Otherwise the race is shaping up to be as much of a slog as trying to sit through an entire episode of The Littlest Hobo.

Case in point: before his abrupt exit from the race earlier this week, the top contender for Stephen Harper's old job was Tony Clement, who is best known to most Canadians for building a $50-million gazebo. Next is "Mad Max" Bernier, who seems to genuinely buy into the myth that a libertarian dream world is one where ragged men roam around a broken world lobbing small explosives at each other out of armored jeeps. Brad Trost is on a crusade to put buggery back in the Criminal Code and Kellie Leitch went on the cover of Maclean's to warn us about brown-skinned stranger danger. Chris Alexander is on a personal redemption tour and nobody has ever heard of anyone else in the running. Welcome to the jungle; it gets worse here every day.

Read More: Ranking Canada's Prime Ministers by How Boring They Are

The race is still young, of course: the deadline for declaring candidacy is February 2017 and the convention is next May. But barring something truly incredible happening—like Kevin O'Leary emerging monstrously out of a toilet in a perfect visual metaphor for what he'd bring to the national conversation—it's pretty easy to chart out where this thing is going to go.

It's a tale as old as time—or at least 1980, when political scientist George Perlin first wrote the book on "Tory Syndrome." Like clockwork, after a bad election showing the Conservative party eats its failed leader and then attempts to eat itself. Conflicting personalities take up the cause of one or more of the party's internal factions: the social conservatives or the laissez-fairies or the East Coast aristocrats, with a sprinkling of Western populism to accelerate the ferment. Too many people compete for too few donors, resentful rivals linger on the sidelines, the party machinery stalls out and another bad election jumpstarts the death spiral all over again. Meanwhile, some Liberal bastard laughs all the way to the next spending scandal. Lather, rinse, and repeat.

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Not that there aren't some mitigating circumstances to this classic formula. Unlike Tory losers past, Harper wasn't utterly crucified by the electorate or his caucus the way John Diefenbaker, Joe Clark, or Brian Mulroney were. The Conservatives still hold most of Western Canada and few of the candidates are keen to totally disown Harper or his legacy. This also isn't the 1990s: there are no obvious signs of an impending Reform/PC divorce on the horizon.

Canadian social conservatives have long been more bark than bite, and despite Brad Trost's homophobic fever dreams it seems unlikely they're enough of a political force to get him past the first ballot at convention, let alone overturn the national consensus on abortion or same-sex marriage. Kellie Leitch's doubling-down on the "barbaric cultural practices" schtick might generate lots of coverage in the left-nationalist outrage economy, but it hasn't seemed to give her much traction with internal supporters. Odds are, the 68% of Canadians sketched out by obvious signs of foreignness will prefer a more subtle form of anti-immigrant hand wringing more in line with their mushy progressive self-image.

All this raises the question of who the CPC base actually is, and what they actually want. Realistically, other than the basically irrational brand loyalty at the heart of all partisanship, what do the Conservatives offer that the Liberals don't? So far, on the major policy fronts, the functional differences have been negligible—both parties love running deficits and sticking to the same emissions targets. The biggest differences hinge on personality and branding—and here Justin Trudeau is a master of the dark arts.

It's possible the Tory leadership race will give us a thoughtful exploration of principles and policies. Maybe it will culminate in a grand, detailed vision of a properly conservative Canada to challenge Trudeau's Sunny Ways in 2019.

More likely, it's going to come down to a basic conflict of personalities. The stakes are low, so you have a bunch of obscure also-rans competing in a popularity contest for a job nobody really wants. These are the classic symptoms of Tory Syndrome. Remission is always possible, of course. But without some compelling personality stepping up to the mic in the next four months, the prognosis is likely terminal.

It's a gruesome death: anemia for the party, and boredom for everyone else.

Follow Drew Brown on Twitter.