Inside 48 hours and a momentum shift on the Conservative campaign

Andrew Scheer and his team appeared relaxed and quietly confident late last week, dancing at a Nova Scotia rally and joking with reporters. But amid a dramatic push to sharpen his message and build momentum to Election Day, bold claims and a Friday night surprise created some tension.

The crowds are big, the message is sharper - but the questions keep coming for leader Andrew Scheer

Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer speaks at a rally in Little Harbour, N.S., Thursday. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

It was the final Thursday of the election campaign, and inside a small community hall in Little Harbour, N.S., Jill Scheer stood near the back of the room with a big smile on her face.

As the energetic rally with a few hundred people started to wind down, she picked up the two-month-old daughter of a senior Conservative staffer and started playfully dancing with baby Georgia — bopping along to the campaign theme song as it played on a nearby speaker. 

Her husband, Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer, had just finished a decent day on the campaign trail. 

At that rally, he relied less on his Teleprompter. And while it was there for safety, he deviated at times from his prepared script in the hopes of connecting better with the audience. 

But his big moment of the day came at an earlier stop in Brampton, Ont., where he laid the groundwork to push for power in a minority government situation.

"The party that wins the most seats should get to form the government," Scheer told reporters standing at a construction site. 

And while that's not how Canada's parliamentary system works, exactly, Scheer's comments signalled he's ready to take this fight well past Election Day. 

"A prime minister who enters into an election and comes out of that election with fewer seats than another party resigns. That is a modern convention in Canadian politics," he said.

The deliberate statement appeared to suggest the Conservatives had data, whether it be internal polling or something else, that demonstrated Scheer was in a position to win the most seats, but not necessarily a majority.

Scheer and his team appeared relaxed and quietly confident. So much so, that when leaving Little Harbour for Halifax that night, Scheer got some laughs from reporters when the media bus stopped for a beer run.

Holding a Bluetooth speaker above his head, he came up the stairs of the coach, with the song The Final Countdown blaring.

From that point on, there was a dramatic push to build momentum.

It triggered a tense two days on the campaign, with mixed results.

New line of attack

Scheer's plane touched down in Fredericton early the next morning. His team headed to a local brewery, where a couple hundred people had gathered to hear him speak. 

"We are only three days away from Canadians finally having their say on Justin Trudeau's last four years as prime minister," he said to big cheers as he started into his usual stump speech.

But he snuck in a new line of attack, one that did not go unnoticed. 

Scheer faced questions when he went after the Liberals and NDP, suggesting the two parties would hike the GST by 2.5 points if they formed a coalition. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

"We've looked at the Liberal and NDP platforms and a coalition of the two would run a deficit of $40 billion next year alone," he declared. 

"To pay for even half of these never-ending deficits, the Trudeau-NDP coalition would have to raise the GST from 5 per cent to 7.5 per cent, or cut completely the Canada Social Transfer to the provinces."

At no point in this campaign have either the Liberals or the NDP mused about raising the GST. Despite that, Scheer dug in when challenged by reporters. 

"We are showing Canadians the types of costs that will be associated with this massive amount of new deficits. They will have to make choices.... Raising the GST from 5 to 7.5 per cent is one option."

Scheer raises a glass of milk during a stop in rival Maxime Bernier's riding of Beauce — a nod to the support of Quebec's dairy industry, which helped him defeat Bernier for the Conservative leadership. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

The claim was no accident, and was likely aimed at motivating the conservative base to show up in big numbers on Monday.

But when Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau and NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh both declared the allegation to be false, Scheer's claims became one of the stories of the day. 

Friday night surprise, Saturday questions

Repeated questions from reporters about his GST claim were clearly frustrating for Scheer's road team, as Conservative staffers pointed out the Liberals were playing their own numbers game and making false claims about Conservative spending cuts.

If the mood behind the scenes was starting to harden, it was only made worse late Friday when The Globe and Mail broke a story that claimed a well-known political operative was hired by the Conservatives to secretly sling mud at Maxime Bernier and The People's Party of Canada. CBC News also published the story. 

Scheer had to have known he would be bombarded by questions about the story when he stood before reporters at his daily news conference Saturday morning. 

On Saturday, Scheer was forced to talk about Bernier again — this time, to react to news reports his party had secretly worked with a former Liberal strategist to sideline Bernier's People's Party. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

"As a rule, we never make comments on vendors that we may or may not have engaged with," he said, over and over and over again.

Unwilling to veer away from his talking point, the news conference turned into a standoff. 

Reporters broke etiquette rules, asking more than just one question and one followup, with a frustrated staffer threatening to end the event if journalists didn't abide by that standard. Scheer soldiered on without calling a halt to the questions, even allowing a CBC reporter six followup questions.

But to say it went poorly for the Conservatives would be an understatement. 

Scheer repeatedly dodges question about negative social media campaign

2 years ago
Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer is repeatedly asked if his party contracted a firm to negatively target the People's Party of Canada. 1:46

With just two days to go, the man who spent weeks arguing that Trudeau had no moral authority to govern was now tainted by a mudslinging scandal of his own that he refused to deny. 

On top of that, he stood by a GST hike claim his party came up with, even though no leader has said that idea is on the agenda.

Whether the stumbles of the past 48 hours will have an impact on the campaign won't be known until ballots are counted on Monday.

On the second-to-last day of campaigning before Monday's vote, Sheer was drawing big crowds as he made stops in the Toronto area. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

If party faithful are upset, it didn't show on Saturday night, when well over 1,500 people showed up at a Richmond Hill, Ont., banquet hall to see Scheer in person. 

The venue was so packed that organizers had to remove room dividers to allow more people inside. 

But the joy and quiet confidence among Scheer's inner circle that was so obvious in Little Harbour was in much shorter supply on Saturday.


  • This story has been updated from a previous version to add more to an Andrew Scheer quote. Scheer said that to pay for potential deficits, a Liberal-NDP coalition would have to raise the GST or "or cut completely the Canada Social Transfer to the provinces."
    Oct 20, 2019 1:10 PM ET


Katie Simpson is a foreign correspondent with CBC News based in Washington. Prior to joining the team in D.C. she spent six years covering Parliament Hill in Ottawa and nearly a decade covering local and provincial issues in Toronto.

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