Andrew Scheer and the Conservative caucus meet in Victoria to plot course against Liberals

Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer and his parliamentary caucus are meeting in Victoria today and tomorrow, where they are sure to be crafting a plan to erode Liberal support as the Trudeau government heads into the back half of its first mandate.

Strategy session expected to look at NAFTA, Bill Morneau and party unity in advance of parliamentary return

Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer and his caucus are expected to talk about trade, Bill Morneau and party unity at a meeting in Victoria on Wednesday and Thursday. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer and his parliamentary caucus are meeting in Victoria today and tomorrow, where they are sure to be crafting a plan to erode Liberal support as the Trudeau government heads into the back half of its first mandate.

The renegotiation of NAFTA continues to dominate Canada's political horizon, with the latest round of talks underway this week in Montreal. For Scheer, a key issue at the Victoria meeting is expected to be Canada's trade relationships and how effectively Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's team is managing them.

But the trade file isn't a simple one.

On the one hand, Scheer's party is resolutely pro-trade, which has blunted his ability to score points at Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's expense over NAFTA.

On a recent trip to Washington, D.C., Scheer attended a roundtable discussion at the Wilson Center, where he said he was in the United States to support the government's efforts to renegotiate NAFTA.

"On NAFTA, the Canadian Parliament — certainly from the perspective of the government and Opposition — is united," the Toronto Star reported him saying.

Scheer speaks at a roundtable discussion at the Wilson Center in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 17. (Alex Panetta/Canadian Press)

On the other hand, Scheer can't simply spend the next few months applauding the Liberal government's efforts on NAFTA. He will want to differentiate himself, and his party, by raising questions about how the Liberals have prepared Canada for the potentially rough waters ahead should those NAFTA talks fail.

But that narrative will run up against something Canadians have been hearing about for months: the flurry of Liberal cabinet ministers who have been courting their American counterparts, state governors and business groups south of the border. It will also buttress images of Trudeau himself smiling while standing next to U.S. President Donald Trump.

Scheer's pitch becomes even more complicated when former Conservative interim leader Rona Ambrose, who is helping advise the Liberal government on its NAFTA strategy, suggests the problem is not with Canada.

"Let's just remember that everything that Canada has done to date, and we have gone to the table in a serious way, with serious proposals, has been met with complete inflexibility," Ambrose told CBC Radio's The House just last week.

With comments like that coming from his side of the fence, convincing Canadians their government hasn't been trying hard enough on this file, will certainly be a challenge for Scheer and his party going into the new parliamentary sitting that begins Jan. 29.

The most important thing of all on this file, however, is that the Conservatives do no harm. The idea that internal bickering in Canada between the Tories and the Liberals somehow sank the talks is something no one wants to wear.

The Conservatives have instead attempted to focus on Trudeau's apparent snub of a revised Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal last November, blaming his "erratic" behaviour for scuttling the deal — a narrative undermined by confirmation Tuesday that Canada had agreed to sign on to the deal. 

Maximizing the Liberals' self-inflicted pain

Stepping away from trade, the Conservatives will also likely want to revisit the subject of their most successful attacks in the last parliamentary sitting: Finance Minister Bill Morneau.

The slow drip of Morneau's troubles this past fall were a beautiful sound for the Conservative Party. And Scheer and his front bench took maximum advantage, hammering the finance minister in question period day after day over a series of alleged ethical violations.

Those alleged violations included failing to declare a villa in France, retaining stocks in his former pension company while introducing pension legislation, and selling some of those same stocks at a time when the Opposition said he knew the stocks were about to drop because new tax measures were slated to come into effect.

Morneau was found guilty and had to pay a $200 fine over the villa, but was unequivocally cleared over the sale of shares. An investigation into Morneau's introduction of pension legislation while he still owned shares in Morneau Shepell, is ongoing, although those shares have now been sold and the profits donated to charity.

Small business tax changes and the Aga Khan

Morneau was also broadly attacked for a series of proposals to reform the small business tax system. The finance minister's aim may have been to crack down on the small percentage of wealthy people privately incorporating in an effort to pay less tax. But the way the changes were announced, Morneau made it sound like small business owners were tax cheats and the Tories took advantage of the misstep.

After taking a beating in the House of Commons and across the country, Morneau walked back many of his most contentious small business tax changes and tried to sweeten the pot by announcing the small business tax rate would be cut to nine per cent from 10.5 per cent.

While Morneau On The Ropes: Part 2, may be enticing, the Conservatives likely hope they have a much bigger fish to fry in the coming weeks and months: the prime minister himself.

The Conservatives will also want to keep the discussion over the slap Trudeau got from the former ethics commissioner for his family's vacations on the Aga Khan's private island going for as long as possible.

Trudeau apologized and promised to do better in the future. He doesn't face any sort of sanctions (beyond the shame of being the first prime minister to violate the Conflict of Interest  Act), because the legislation doesn't call for any punishment. But it can be an almost certainty that the Conservatives have not forgotten the breach.

U.S. President Donald Trump welcomes Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to the White House in Washington, D.C., last October. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

It's been eight months since Scheer was crowned Conservative leader. A major part of what put him there was his insistence on maintaining party unity. Deputy Conservative leader Lisa Raitt said one of Scheer's successes as leader, so far, has been keeping his caucus united too.

"Remember, we went down to the last possible ballot in our leadership contest and yet you still see a very united caucus speaking in one voice, performing very well in the House of Commons. Quite frankly, it's a very positive vibe," told CBC News

Scheer has managed to keep his former leadership rivals on side— or at least prevent any overt challenges to his leadership, but there are a few burbles of discontent.

A handful of Conservative MPs will have to fend off challengers from within their own party in order to run as the Conservative candidates in the next election.

Word emerged late Tuesday that one of those MPs, former leadership rival Kellie Leitch, had decided she would not run in the next election.

Another former leadership rival facing a nomination challenge, Brad Trost, is also in a legal battle with the Conservative Party that is threatening to heat up — though Trost says his relationship with Scheer remains good.

Can that relationship — between Scheer and his parliamentary caucus — remain strong? Can the Conservative Party poke holes in the Liberal tent when members return to Ottawa? The caucus meeting over the next couple of days is aiming to do just that.

With files from Catherine Cullen