Could history remember Stephen Harper as the last and only modern leader of a strong, united Conservative Party?
Everybody likes a winner. As Harper's Conservatives improved their performance in every election from 2004 and finally won a majority government in 2011, there was little dissent in the ranks.
The move to unite the right which culminated in the merger of the Canadian Alliance and Progressive Conservative parties in 2003 proved its worth as the Liberals were first reduced to a minority government, then to the opposition benches, and then almost to oblivion.
But as Tories take a dive in the polls and the chances of re-election in 2015 — especially with another majority — grow dimmer, the cracks are beginning to show. The latest comes in the form of a nomination challenge to Calgary MP Rob Anders by a group of more centrist Conservatives.
Anders is a good example of the cleavages that still exist within the conservative coalition. A supporter of Alberta's Wildrose Party, Anders comes from the right-wing of the party in a province that has, in the past few years, seen its centre-right split between Danielle Smith's Wildrose and Premier Alison Redford's Progressive Conservatives. As long as the rift is contained to Alberta, where there is no risk of anybody but a conservative of some stripe winning, the party can let off a little steam.
It is highly unlikely Harper will not contest the next election. But if he loses the next vote, it seems likely he will step down. The resulting leadership race would have the potential to push the rift onto the national stage and turn those cracks into chasms between the two wings of the party.
Nobody likes a loser. When Republicans were struggling from the midterms in 2006 to the presidential defeat in 2008, and again after the 2012 loss, the party nearly tore itself apart. Some thought the GOP had to move towards the centre to win again, others that the party had not become conservative enough and the Tea Party was born.
If Conservatives lose the next election, and particularly if they lose badly, members will ask themselves what went wrong and how to fix it. Some will undoubtedly argue the party got away from its Reform/Canadian Alliance grassroots and became entitled in power. Others will argue the party swung too far to the right and that a move back to the centre would make them more competitive against the centrist Liberals.
As the next leadership race will give equal weight to each riding association in the country, the preponderance of members in Western Canada will not give any advantage to candidates coming out of the old Alliance wing of the party (except in fundraising, of course).
A Red Tory candidate could find a base of support in Quebec, Atlantic Canada, and the urban areas of the country — enough to potentially win. Such a victory could split the party if the old Alliance base fails to see themselves in the new softer version of the Conservative Party. And vice-versa: Red Tories may not accept a swing to the right if they see in that the cause of the last electoral defeat.
Is this likely? Perhaps not. Many members of the party will surely realize the risk a candidate from either wing might pose to Conservative unity, and instead choose someone in the centre.
But there is far more precedent for a return to a divided right than there is for a merger of the centre-left, which has garnered much more ink in the last few years.
Certainly, the old Alliance and PC wings of the party are not as far apart now as the Liberals and New Democrats. The odds are that things will stay that way.
But a defeat in the next election may be far more disruptive than a simple change in government.
Éric Grenier taps The Pulse of federal and regional politics for Huffington Post Canada readers every week. Grenier is the author of ThreeHundredEight.com, covering Canadian politics, polls and electoral projections.
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