Analysis

Rona Ambrose will leave Tories better off, but still playing catch-up

The Conservative Party has avoided falling to pieces. And if the Conservatives somehow fail to return to government after 2019, it at least won't be Rona Ambrose's fault.

'I think we're demonstrating to Canadians that there is another way,' says outgoing interim leader

Interim Conservative Leader Rona Ambrose emerged as a formidable performer in question period. But her party continues to have little appeal for female voters. (Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press)

"I've been asked, more and more lately it seems, what I think we've accomplished during my time behind the wheel of this incredible, exciting movement," Rona Ambrose said Tuesday morning to an audience at the Chateau Laurier, about her time as interim leader of the Conservative Party, now nearing an end.

"And my answer is this: We are strong, focused and united. And there was no guarantee that it would be this way. And now we have clearly shown that Justin Trudeau can be beaten in 2019."

The Conservative Party has, indeed, avoided falling to pieces. Though the real test of cohesion might come when the next leader is tasked with tying together the various strains of conservatism that have been on display in the party's leadership race.

And Trudeau's Liberals surely can be beaten. That has not somehow become a theoretical impossibility, though there remains a sizable gap between can and will.

But if the Conservatives somehow fail to return to government after 2019, it at least won't be her fault.

It's good to be interim leader

Ambrose will depart with her image burnished. She smartly embraced the fact she wasn't Stephen Harper and she emerged as a formidable performer in question period.

Interim Conservative Leader Rona Ambrose announces her resignation from politics at a breakfast speech in Ottawa. 3:01

After an underwhelming career as a minister in Harper's cabinet, Ambrose will likely now be regarded as a respected elder stateswoman, her run as interim leader having prompted suggestions she should have sought the full post.

But after Bob Rae's similarly respected run as interim Liberal leader from 2011 to 2013, it is perhaps time to consider whether the real prize in Canadian politics is not prime minister, but babysitting a humbled opposition party. (That Ambrose had to beat out seven other contenders for the interim Conservative post suggests some MPs have figured this out.)

The interim leader needn't present an agenda for governing or defend a new set of policies. And while leadership contenders are preening and chasing votes, the interim leader can be a steadying presence in the wake of defeat. When it's over, everyone gathers in the House of Commons to say nice things about you.

In Ambrose's case, the party notably regained its fundraising advantage with her at the helm.

Interim Tory leader tests out new party slogans for Press Gallery 0:42

And with Rae and Ambrose in mind, New Democrats might now wonder whether they should have shoved Tom Mulcair aside in favour of a new voice while they waited for their next leader.

What the Conservatives did with Ambrose as leader

In reviewing the last 18 months, Ambrose recounted the various ways her opposition has run down Trudeau's government.

"We have done our job," she said. "We've raised the alarm on Liberals' tax hikes.… We've shone a light on the billions and billions of dollars of new Liberal debt."

Conservatives, she noted, have effectively pestered the government about electoral reform and Yazidi refugees. 

With generous assistance from the prime minister himself, Conservatives have also been able to dwell on the Aga Khan's private island and several other ethical quandaries. 

In all, the Official Opposition has at least pounded a few dents into Trudeau's image and perhaps established a basis from which the next leader can work.

"I think we're demonstrating to Canadians that there is another way, that there is another party that wants to put their interests before their own," she said.

Top 5 newsmakers: Rona Ambrose 7:03

Maybe. But for now that mostly amounts to a series of complaints, not a counter-offer that explains what a Conservative government would do differently or how it would balance the budget.

The woman problem

"We need to continue reaching out to Canadians of all backgrounds to make our case for change. And I think one way we can do this more effectively is by having more women on our team, and I believe that strongly."

Ambrose said she would be working to encourage more women to run for the Conservative Party, and she reviewed how her party has championed women's rights. As leader, she said, she has been proud to put women on the front benches. And she did not do so to fill a quota, she noted, taking a barely veiled shot at Trudeau's gender-balanced cabinet.

Thing is, there were already just 18 women among the Conservative side's 99 MPs, and the most prominent of them, Ambrose, is now leaving. Meanwhile, Lisa Raitt, a leadership candidate, has said she's not sure she'll run for re-election in 2019.

And beyond the House of Commons, the Conservative Party has a woman problem.

Among male voters, the Conservatives have gotten back to parity with the Liberals, according to tracking by Nanos, with the Liberals leading by just four points, 38 to 34.

But among women the Liberals lead 47 to 22, a greater advantage than what Nanos found in October 2015, when the Liberals won their majority.

Back when the Conservatives were winning enough seats to form government, they were at least able to hold the other parties to a draw among female voters.

And if the next Conservative leader is unable to do something about that gap, the party might be looking for another interim leader in the fall of 2019.

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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