Politics·Analysis

After 99 days of O'Leary, is it Maxime Bernier's Tory time?

So, presumably, ends one of the strangest careers in the history of Canadian politics. And so, perhaps, begins the Conservative Party's Maxime Bernier era.

Conservative leadership rivals quickly attack Bernier as the front-runner in final debate

Conservative leadership candidate Maxime Bernier, left, shakes hands with Kevin O'Leary after O'Leary quit the race on Wednesday and threw his support to Bernier. (Nathan Denette/Canadian Press)

So, presumably, ends one of the strangest careers in the history of Canadian politics. And so, perhaps, begins the Conservative Party's Maxime Bernier era.

"I am going to throw my support behind Maxime Bernier," Kevin O'Leary explained at a news conference in Toronto on Wednesday afternoon. "Because I think it's the right thing for the party and I think it's the right thing for the country."

Bernier, typically dapper in a tailored suit and French cuffs, declared himself "very pleased."

From start to finish, Kevin O'Leary's political career lasted 99 days, though his public flirtation with the profession began more than a year ago.

But what a time it was.

O'Leary leaves the Conservative race and speaks to reporters 1:31

The long and short of a political career

In between musing that he might be interested in seeking the Conservative leadership and announcing that he was out, the television entertainer threatened to withhold federal funds from provinces that elected governments whose policies he disagreed with, suggested selling Senate seats to the highest bidder, mused about running for the Liberal leadership, suggested he'd jail the executives of companies that can't control their carbon emissions, proposed using the notwithstanding clause to turn away refugee claimants, questioned the use of military force, skipped an official party debate, and brandished a spatula in a campaign video while declaring he would scrape the "crap" out of Ottawa.

He suggested he wouldn't seek a seat in Parliament, even if he did win. And he seemed to be campaigning only part time, travelling to the United States at various points for business engagements and appearances. A month after declaring his candidacy, he turned up on QVC to pitch his eponymous brand of wines.

Sounding like a pro wrestler

He spoke in the over-the-top tones of a pro wrestler, referring to the prime minister as a "surfer dude," declaring that the next election would be an "exorcism" and vowing to be the finance minister's "worst nightmare."

While distancing himself from U.S. President Donald Trump's most incendiary rhetoric, O'Leary still tried to link himself with the anti-establishment sentiment that seemed to be manifesting itself in the United States and other countries.

"I am not a politician, nor am I an Ottawa insider," he told his supporters.

And he garnered a not-insignificant amount of support. He claimed to have signed up 35,000 new members and raised more than $1 million. A poll of party members released on Wednesday had him as the front-runner, with 26.3 per cent of first-ballot support.

Maybe those Conservatives liked what they saw and heard from him. Maybe they just thought he could beat Justin Trudeau.

Did O'Leary see through the numbers?

That he quit now hints he knew better than those numbers might suggest: that he couldn't win or had little chance. By his own admission, he wouldn't have been able to lead the Conservatives to victory in 2019, on account of a lack of support in Quebec. Apparently, after 99 days as a candidate, he was done trying to woo the province.

O'Leary, it should be noted, was supported by just two current Conservative MPs. In stepping aside, he might have at least spared the party from dealing with a ruinous divide between leader and caucus. 

In theory, O'Leary's move could be a significant boost to Bernier's bid. But it is difficult to gauge the extent of that boost with any precision: unlike in the good ol' days of delegated conventions, a candidate cannot physically move his or her supporters across the floor to another candidate.

Bernier was at least treated like a front-runner on Wednesday night, attacked more than a dozen times as the candidates gathered for their last official debate.

An enthusiastic libertarian

Unlike O'Leary, Bernier is a politician. But he can make a claim to being a different kind of politician.

He is, in short, an enthusiastic libertarian who would go further to implement conservative fiscal ideals than any practising conservative in living memory: dramatically cutting taxes and shrinking the federal government. He proudly touts how far he'll go and how consistent he'll be.

It would be interesting to see how that all added up within a fully costed platform (and how broadly such a platform would appeal). But perhaps it could tap a well of desire for change, for something different. He is at least interesting.

So maybe Bernier is a politician of the moment. Or maybe he is the Conservative version of Stéphane Dion, whose leadership crashed and burned with him holding onto a bold policy agenda (in Dion's case, a carbon tax).

Has O'Leary jumped the shark?

If the rest of the field decides that Bernier is the candidate to beat, the Bernier-O'Leary merger could inspire further consolidation around an alternative. Maybe that's Andrew Scheer or Erin O'Toole, who have the most caucus support. Some of the obvious also-rans might decide it would be nice to be on a winning side.

Other than the next season of Shark Tank, is that the last we've seen of Kevin O'Leary?

He suggested on Wednesday that he is willing to help Bernier and the Conservative Party win the next election. But is he particularly interested in doing anything other than turning up on TV every so often to make inflammatory comments about Trudeau?

For that matter, are Bernier and the party particularly interested in his services? Now that he's walked away, how closely do Conservatives wish to be associated with him and whatever else he might say?

Will we ever see the likes of him again?

That is perhaps the most interesting question raised by O'Leary's candidacy. Whether he was an odd post-Trump flash in the pan. Or whether, in substance or in style, the reality TV star's political turn was a harbinger of where politics is going.

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. He is the author of Promise & Peril, a book about Justin Trudeau's years in power.

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