Analysis

'Fake Conservatives', real blowback: Why Bernier backed down

Timing is everything in politics. The same thing goes for books about one's own politics.

'I realize whatever I write, it will always be interpreted as me creating division,' Bernier says

Maxime Bernier may have realized he's in a better position to further his long-term political goals by playing on Andrew Scheer's team for now. (THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Timing is everything in politics. The same thing goes for writing books about one's own politics.

"This book and the ideas it contains are very important to me. But now is not the right time to publish it," Maxime Bernier tweeted on Wednesday, five months after announcing his intention to write about himself and his vision for the country.

Speaking to reporters about the indefinite deferral of Bernier's Doing Politics Differently: My Vision for Canada, Conservative MP Erin O'Toole agreed.

"Memoirs usually come at the end of a political career," O'Toole reportedly said. "So I think this is good."

Most politicians do wait until it's all over before looking back. But Bernier would not have been the first active federal politician in recent memory to write a book about himself and his agenda.

Justin Trudeau released an autobiography, Common Ground, in 2014. Thomas Mulcair, after mocking the Liberal leader's decision to publish so soon, released his own book in 2015: Strength of Conviction.

In 2009, Michael Ignatieff penned True Patriot Love, a book about his family's history in Canada.

But there's a significant and obvious difference between where those three men were when their books were released, and where Bernier is now.

Trudeau, Mulcair and Ignatieff were all federal party leaders looking to become prime minister. Bernier is not a party leader. And even if he still harbours great ambitions, he's expected to be demure about them for the time being.

Challenging the leader, contradicting the party

So it was always a bit odd that Bernier, having narrowly lost the race for leadership of the Conservative Party to Andrew Scheer, was preparing to dwell at length on himself and his program for the nation.

It got odder when he released a sneak preview of Chapter 5, in which he questions the manner in which Scheer won the leadership and restates his opposition to the system of supply management that governs the poultry and dairy sectors in Canada. And that was after Bernier vowed to keep quiet about his own view of supply management.

In an excerpt from his upcoming book, Maxime Bernier suggests that a campaign by Quebec's dairy lobby handed Andrew Scheer the victory in the federal Conservative leadership vote 7:05

"I will never again say the opposite of what I believe in and pretend this is a good system just for the sake of party unity," Bernier wrote. "A substantial portion of the party is behind me on this. And the next time an opportunity presents itself to debate it, I will resume my fight."

Scheer probably didn't appreciate the bit about how "fake Conservatives" handed him the party leadership.

But the leader of the opposition — who has borrowed from the British in insisting on referring to his team of critics as a 'shadow cabinet' — could have been asked whether he could still keep Bernier in his team. Cabinet ministers who publicly disagree with government policy typically have to step aside.

Would that have undercut Scheer's stated enthusiasm for the right to free speech? Perhaps. But if there's one realm where that right comes up against tight limits, it's party politics.

"I think having the ability to say something is one thing," observed Conservative MP Marilyn Gladu. "The consequences of saying something is another thing and we all have to face that."

Scheer and Bernier: Better together?

Bernier successfully used his exile from Stephen Harper's cabinet — after famously misplacing his briefs — to build his profile as a free-speaking true believer in small government and economic liberty. And that period in the wilderness likely set him up to make a serious run at the party leadership.

He could attempt the same thing now — by quitting. One might point to John Turner's departure from the Liberal Party in 1975 and his subsequent return in 1984 (maybe not as a case-study in how to enjoy a long career as prime minister, though).

Pipelines politics are heating up- Justin Trudeau is heading back from Peru, where he was attending the Summit of the Americas, early. He plans to get Rachel Notley and John Horgan in a room together to work things out- but it's obvious which side he's on. And Maxime Bernier lost the Conservative leadership election, but he hasn't fallen off the map- a chapter from his forthcoming book is causing controversy. Rosemary Barton hosts Chantal Hébert, Andrew Coyne and Althia Raj. 16:14

But Scheer and Bernier likely still derive some mutual benefits from each other's company. 

For Scheer, Bernier is a well-known francophone and a useful voice for fiscal conservatism. Party members who share Bernier's beliefs might be heartened to see him on Scheer's team.

For Bernier, Scheer offers a seat on the Conservative front bench and a chance to stay in the game.

Internal division is rarely a good look for a party hoping to govern. And if Bernier hopes to one day be in a position to implement some or all of his ideas — either as a cabinet minister in a Scheer government or in his own government — it might be wiser for him to be a team player now.

Bernier's late realization

Walking away from his book on Wednesday, Bernier blamed the media. Reporters, he lamented, had been focusing on the most interesting bits in the manuscript and ignoring the rest.

"There were three paragraphs out of 30 pages on the leadership results in the chapter released last week by my publisher," Bernier tweeted.

"I realize that whatever I write, it will always be interpreted as me creating division and challenging our leader."

That realization is fair — and rather late in arriving.

But if Bernier still wants to write for and about himself, he surely has an option — quit the Conservative Party.

About the Author

Aaron Wherry

Parliament Hill Bureau

Aaron Wherry has covered Parliament Hill since 2007 and has written for Maclean's, the National Post and the Globe and Mail.

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