OTTAWA — It was a version of a speech Pierre Poilievre delivered dozens of times to rallies in months of running for leadership of the Conservative party.
But this time, the audience wasn’t drawn from the thousands of political newcomers who had spilled out of bars and basements, and ultimately helped deliver his win six months ago.
This week, Poilievre was speaking to the elite of Canada’s “conservative movement”— the former party leaders, thinkers, strategists, activists and others who together form the intellectual backbone of conservatism in Canada today, and had gathered in Ottawa for the annual Canada Strong and Free conference.
For any other new Conservative leader, the stakes of a speech in that kind of room might have been enormous.
But not for Poilievre.
Over dozens of conversations over two days at the conference, one thing became very clear: to those in attendance, he is a child of the movement and speaks its language; as one person put it, he knows the “secret handshakes.”
So although it was from within this group that the knives came out for Andrew Scheer, when he led the Conservatives to defeat in 2019, and for Erin O’Toole, when he similarly failed in 2021, the consensus today is that Poilievre is safe.
For now, anyway.
Why that is speaks to the challenge ahead of him that insiders say he’s perfectly positioned to tackle: keeping the old guard happy but bringing in new soldiers at the same time.
Those attending this year’s conference included former Reform party honchos who gave Poilievre his earliest jobs on Parliament Hill. They tell stories of how hard he hustled to the work done — and respect him for that work ethic to this day.
There were former staff colleagues, who have watched with surprise at how the policy geek they knew back then has evolved into an empathetic people person. To them, that proves he has grown and matured.
There were the leaders of conservative-adjacent organizations, who remember him as the junior MP who was ever curious to hear about their demands and concerns — even back then, in a sweatshirt and ripped jeans, they saw him as a listener.
And there were the party luminaries too, chief among them former Reform party leader Preston Manning and former Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper.
On stage together Wednesday night, Manning and Harper reflected on the birth of the Reform movement, with Harper recalling Poilievre’s days as a “tiny Reformer.”
But Harper also placed Poilievre in the cohort of conservative leaders who were once mocked for their unorthodox ideas, only to eventually see them enter the political mainstream — leaders U.S. president Ronald Reagan and British prime minister Margaret Thatcher.
It was high praise coming from Canada’s most recent conservative prime minister, a man who — as Poilievre noted — remains revered by the country’s conservative movement.
Poilievre was a junior cabinet minister in Harper’s government, where he cut his teeth as a pugilistic force on the front benches in the House of Commons, and the two still speak frequently.
And it was by echoing an idea that Harper had expressed as a rookie Conservative leader that Poilievre earned him the trust of the party.
“I’ve told my caucus repeatedly, if you make conservatism relevant to ordinary working people, you make the most powerful political philosophy in Western democratic society,” Harper told an interviewer in 2006.
Watching Poilievre draw thousands of people to his events — some clearly coming directly from construction sites or factory shifts — has left the party’s old guard optimistic he is on that path.
That performance, several told the Star, will get him what his two immediate predecessors did not: a chance to push the party in policy directions it hasn’t gone in the past.
So-called “ordinary working people” represent a voting bloc of as many as 6.5 million Canadians, the conference heard this week, based on analysis of Statistics Canada data.
Those voters have been politically abandoned by the left, a panel of former policy advisers noted — as evidenced by Premier Doug Ford’s ability to hoover up support from private sector unions in the last Ontario election — opening up a potential well of support for federal Tories.
Where Poilievre’s polling numbers have been strong in recent weeks is in that demographic; a poll by the firm Abacus Data suggested he enjoys more support among working-class voters, for example, than does the leader of any other party.
“Pierre Poilievre’s team deserves tremendous credit for both its broad-base message but in particular, a message that reflects the interests and needs of working-class voters as they are, not as we think them to be,” former Harper adviser Sean Speer told the conference.
Poilievre delivered a version of that message to this year’s conference, in some cases using the same anecdotes and jokes he uses on the road. That was intentional, insiders told the Star; Poilievre was making the point that he can and will speak to the elites in the same way he speaks to the party’s rank and file.
Still, it is all a work in progress.
While some conservative thinkers celebrate his commitment to the philosophical underpinnings of tenets like free-market capitalism, others worry whether his working class messaging risks alienating the captains of industry he also needs in his corner.
More than one conference-goer also brought up the question of his approach and tone; as one put it — he walks too fine a line between telling the truth and being civil, and Canadians like to have both.
There is also concern about how the movement’s social conservative wing will fare under his leadership; the recent ouster of one of its candidates from a nomination race in an Ontario riding is a sore spot.
And there’s also another establishment group with which he’s far from being close: the Ontario Progressive Conservative party, which remains a crucial part of the conservative puzzle.
Relations between the federal and provincial parties have been tense for years, and Ford’s unpopularity in 2019 was widely believed to have cost Scheer votes in that year’s federal election.
O’Toole tried to mend fences — his political home is with Ontario PCs — but his ouster sent that work back to the drawing board.
A current tension is the money the federal Liberals and Ontario PCs are throwing at the auto industry to woo EV-related manufacturing the province, something it’s not clear Poilievre supports.
There was no meaningful presence of Ontario PCs at this year’s Canada Strong and Free conference, speaking to the divides that still exist.
But at the panel on the working class, Speer noted there’s a lesson to be drawn from the PCs and their ability to find saleable policies that appeal to the working class.
Now, Speer noted, it’s up to Poilievre to do the same.
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