The Conservatives and Liberals split Monday’s four by-elections two seats apiece. However, the Tories did considerably worse in the riding of Oxford – a Tory stronghold for many years – than decades past. Photo credit: Twitter/Pierre Poilievre
By-elections mean nothing. By-elections mean everything. Depending on your partisan leanings, you’ve probably already made up your mind about how good (or bad) your preferred party performed earlier in the week in the handful of federal ridings that were up for grabs.
For the most part, the by-elections in Ontario, Quebec and Manitoba played out exactly as expected – a status quo result that allowed the Conservatives and the Liberals to respectively hang on to two seats apiece. Even though there were no gains or losses to be had, all eyes have been on Pierre Poilievre to explain exactly why the Conservatives came out performing worse in the Ontario riding of Oxford than they had in the previous two general elections.
For context, Oxford is a safe seat by all accounts, and has been blue territory for nearly two decades. During the nomination process, however, there were several problems that arose. One candidate argued he was disqualified from running due to his pro-life views, while the former MP for the riding publicly endorsed the Liberal candidate after Arpan Khanna won the nomination, stating that he was unhappy with the process that led to a parachute candidate.
These local issues may have been a contributing factor to Khanna winning by less than a 10 per cent margin, which is still a relatively respectable win by all accounts, but nowhere close to the decisive victory seen in previous years.
Poilievre’s problem isn’t the Ottawa chattering classes that seized the opportunity to question the party’s electability after months of strong poll numbers, or his performance in the most recent parliamentary session that saw him repeatedly demonstrate the ability to effectively pounce on the issue of the day and drive home a narrative.
No, the real issue is convincing his restless caucus that everything is fine and to stay the course. Poilievre has the difficult task of managing the expectations of a group of MPs who have proven themselves to be a volatile bunch who don’t take kindly to the suggestion that there is no real path to government.
The Conservative leader has had a relatively easy run since he won the party leadership last fall, in part because he won by a commanding margin, and as a result, he has been able to exercise a measure of discipline over his caucus that hasn’t been seen since the Stephen Harper days of government.
This strategy has paid dividends. Not only have the Conservatives largely stayed out of the headlines for problems of their own making, but they have also been able to capitalize on the never-ending stream of Liberal screw ups.
But the biggest difference between Poilievre’s reign and that of former leader Erin O’Toole is that the stage is all but set for a Conservative victory in the next election, and expectations are high. There is no middle ground.
Poilievre’s first real test of caucus leadership comes in the wake of Monday’s by-election. He will have to circle the square of why, albeit winning, the Conservatives came up short, while also ensuring that his cabal of MPs remains united as they start setting their sights on the next federal election. This also means not buckling to the pressures of the pundit class who are smelling the first signs of blood.
The road to the next election will continue to present challenges, but Poilievre has so far proven that he is not interested in changing tack, and his caucus has stuck by him. Time will tell whether staying the course pays off.
Josie Sabatino is a Senior Consultant at Summa Strategies, focused on providing strategic insight and helping clients meet their objectives in an ever changing and complex political and regulatory environment. Prior to joining Summa, Josie spent nearly a decade in political communications and most recently served as the Director of Communications to the Hon. Erin O’Toole, former Leader of the Official Opposition.