Preston Manning warns Conservative campaigns that personal attacks could 'poison' the party

Former Reform Party leader Preston Manning is urging Conservative leadership contenders to lay off their personal attacks on each other, arguing they risk damaging the party's image with voters.

Former Reform leader says attacks will exacerbate divisions, the 'Achilles heel of the party for some time'

Preston Manning, former leader of the Reform Party, arrives for morning sessions at the Manning Networking Conference in Ottawa on Friday, Feb. 9, 2018. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

Former Reform Party leader Preston Manning is urging Conservative leadership contenders to lay off their personal attacks on each other, arguing they risk damaging the party's image with voters.

In a letter to the leadership campaigns obtained by CBC News, Manning, an elder statesman in conservative circles, said he fears such attacks will "deepen divisions within the federal conservative camp" — cleavages he said have been the "Achilles heel of the party for some time."

He said a particularly nasty campaign could pit eastern conservatives against their western counterparts, "old PC-oriented conservatives versus Reform-oriented conservatives," "secular" conservatives against "religious conservatives" and fiscal and economic conservatives against social conservatives.

Manning said the leadership race should instead focus on policy differences to avoid splintering the party and handing Liberal and NDP operatives the gift of pre-written attack lines that can be used against whoever wins the leadership.

"As I'm sure you know, both the Liberals and the NDP have researchers whose sole job is to record every derogatory statement made by one conservative leadership candidate against another, or made by overly zealous followers," Manning said.

"Then, when the leader is eventually chosen, Liberal/NDP spokespersons will hurl these back at that leader, especially in the House … 'Let me read to the new leader of the CPC what some of the leader's own party members really think about him/her.'

"Stay away from the personal attacks that only poison the party well and reinforce the public's negative perception of party politics."

Manning led the Reform Party from the late 1980s to 2000, through an era when the conservative movement was divided into two competing parties — Reform/Canadian Alliance and the Progressive Conservatives. The fractured conservative vote helped the Liberal Party secure large majority governments in the 1990s.

To avoid a repeat of that sort of vote splintering, Manning said he and "a number of other party 'seniors'" are prepared to help "heal any divisions" that may emerge as a result of this leadership contest.

Manning said it's important for the party to stay united so that the new leader is well-positioned "to defeat the Liberal/NDP coalition in the next federal election" — a reference to the confidence-and-supply agreement the two parties signed earlier this year.

Manning said he will not be endorsing any candidate in this leadership race. He said he'll send "helpful ideas" to campaign managers throughout the contest to "advance the interests of the party and the country."

Manning did not single out any contender by name — but like virtually all leadership campaigns, this one has seen a fair amount of personal sniping.

For example, candidate Patrick Brown, mayor of Brampton, Ont., has accused frontrunner Pierre Poilievre of pushing "discriminatory policies" and standing against immigrants because of his past support for a niqab ban at citizenship ceremonies.

That prompted Poilievre to return fire by calling Brown a liar who distorts the truth for political advantage.

Conservative leadership candidate Pierre Poilievre has been trading insults with his rivals. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Leadership candidate and former Quebec premier Jean Charest has accused Poilievre of seeking the endorsement of "people breaking the law" by supporting truckers and others that were part of the Freedom Convoy protest in Ottawa.

"You can't be a leader of a party and the chief legislator of the country, as prime minister, and support people breaking the laws. That disqualifies you," Charest said of Poilievre in an interview with CTV News earlier this month.

Poilievre's camp has in turn dismissed Charest as someone who is not a "real" Conservative while mocking the smaller crowds his campaign has attracted to its events.


John Paul Tasker

Senior reporter

J.P. Tasker is a journalist in CBC's parliamentary bureau who reports for digital, radio and television. He is also a regular panellist on CBC News Network's Power & Politics. He covers the Conservative Party, Canada-U.S. relations, Crown-Indigenous affairs, climate change, health policy and the Senate. You can send story ideas and tips to J.P. at john.tasker@cbc.ca.

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