Politics·Analysis

What Brexit? Why Andrew Scheer seems reluctant to talk about the project he once called 'cool'

Andrew Scheer once thought it wise to throw his wholehearted support behind the project to take the United Kingdom out of the European Union. But the Conservative leader who once called Brexit "cool" may be regretting his choice of words now.

Once Canada’s keenest Brexiteer, Scheer now avoids the topic

Federal Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer was once Canada's most prominent fan of Brexit. These days, he seems reluctant to discuss the project. (Frank Gunn/Canadian Press)

Andrew Scheer once thought it wise to throw his wholehearted support behind the project to take the United Kingdom out of the European Union. But the Conservative Leader who once called Brexit "cool" may be regretting his choice of words now.

It's safe to say Brexit hasn't gone as planned. The project has devolved into an all-consuming constitutional crisis in the U.K. — polarizing the nation, endangering its economy and holding it up to worldwide scorn.

The damage sustained by Brand Britain has cut deep. The referendum that was supposed to cleanly separate the U.K. from the EU now risks causing the break-up of the United Kingdom itself and undoing a fragile peace in Ireland.

Last week saw scenes of unprecedented rancour in Britain's Parliament, with MPs accusing Prime Minister Boris Johnson of putting their lives in danger with his rhetoric.

They're not exaggerating the potential for violence in the Brexit debate. One anti-Brexit MP, Jo Cox, was murdered by a right-wing extremist days before the EU referendum in 2016.

The toxic imbroglio of the current Brexit debate appears to be distant from the "new, confident future" Scheer predicted in an article he wrote for the National Post in the days before the referendum.

Less than a year ago, Andrew Scheer was still publicly backing Brexit. He even went out of his way to flag his enthusiasm for the project on social media.

These days, Scheer seems reluctant to touch the topic. But the fact that he stood almost alone among prominent Canadian federal politicians in his early and enthusiastic embrace of Brexit means he still faces questions about it on the federal election campaign trail from time to time.

To his credit, Scheer has not hidden from reporters' questions during this campaign. He has made himself more available to the media than Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, whose tightly controlled campaign appearances and tightly scripted answers have frustrated reporters trying to cover him.

But Scheer tends to answer Brexit questions with anodyne statements about respecting the will of U.K. voters. Asked about his early support of Brexit during a media event in Thorold, Ont., on Sept. 24, Scheer quickly pivoted to attacking Trudeau's approach to foreign policy.

"Well, I will always support the ability for people to have their expressions on the democratic process within their country and will always support the country's ability to have control and autonomy over various various levels of policy," he said. "The British people had their say. It's up to British lawmakers now to navigate through that.

"If we want to look at foreign affairs positions, though, I continue to ask Justin Trudeau exactly what is it about China's basic dictatorship that he admires so much. What was he thinking during his trip to India? Why did he put out that eulogy for Fidel Castro?"

Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer says Canadians would get stronger international representation with him as prime minister. He spoke to reporters on the campaign trail in Thorold, Ont. 0:58

Two days later, in Montreal, Scheer gave roughly the same answer to a similar question.

"I've always supported the rights of nations to be able to chart their own course and have autonomy over their own systems," he said.

"I always support the rights of nations," Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer said when asked about his position on Brexit in Montreal. 0:56

Hindsight is 20-20, of course. Still, that National Post piece from June 2016 includes a few passages that point to the problems politicians can make for themselves when they dive into another nation's domestic politics.

This one, for example, hasn't aged well: "The Remain side tells Britons that a vote for exiting the EU is akin to choosing economic and political uncertainty ... It's a profoundly negative and simplistic vision that just happens to be wrong."

Foreign affairs is always a minefield for the unwary politician. A government led by NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh probably could expect to spend its first 13 months in office dealing with a United States still led by President Donald Trump — and might bitterly regret Singh's decision to say he hopes Trump "gets impeached."

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh joked that he hopes Donald Trump "gets impeached." 1:08

The Trudeau government's decision to prod Saudi Arabia over its brutish treatment of detained human rights activist Samar Badawi caused a storm of reaction with very real consequences for Canadian diplomats, farmers and hospitals.

The Trudeau government might argue that the over-the-top reaction from the Saudis was impossible to predict, that the same issue had been raised many times by both Trudeau and Harper governments, and that it was a matter of principle anyway.

But the Trudeau government was still blindsided — a reminder that when leaders' opinions venture offshore, they're swimming in deep waters.

If Scheer is elected, of course, he might find himself dealing with Britain's pro-Brexit Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who might appreciate the stance Scheer once took.

Or he might find himself dealing with a very different government — one that would take a dim view of a foreign leader who once cheered from the sidelines while its own domestic rivals helped to plunge the country into crisis.

People make mistakes. Some politicians have turned past errors in judgment into advantages by addressing them head-on and convincing voters that they've learned from them. Maybe Scheer the Brexiteer has learned something and is simply calculating that the heat of an election campaign is not the best time for mea culpas.

It remains to be seen whether Scheer's embrace of Brexit matters to Canadian voters. But Canada's election day comes just 10 days before the deadline for Britain to finally leave the European Union. So Scheer knows he'll have to fight this campaign against a backdrop of intense public interest in a political project he endorsed wholeheartedly — before it became an infamous debacle.

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said this week that he was serious when he said that he hopes U.S. President Donald Trump is impeached. Meanwhile, Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer is distancing himself from his support of Brexit, which he has publicly defended in the past. 8:47

About the Author

Evan Dyer

Senior Reporter

Evan Dyer has been a journalist with CBC for 18 years, after an early career as a freelancer in Argentina. He works in the Parliamentary Bureau and can be reached at evan.dyer@cbc.ca.

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