OTTAWA — Conservative members of Parliament emerged Wednesday from their final caucus meeting under the leadership of Rona Ambrose — and landed squarely in politically uncertain territory.
In 10 days' time, the party will choose a new leader, and when the House of Commons resumes sitting afterwards, the game changes.
"The public engagement is at a different level, because they will be judging the leader as a potential prime minister rather than as the interim leader representing the Conservative party in a period of transition," said Conservative MP Tony Clement.
"The stakes are higher."
Rona Ambrose, interim leader of the Conservative Party of Canada, receives a standing ovation as she addresses the Conservative National Caucus for the final time as Leader of the Official Opposition, in Ottawa, May 17, 2017. (Photo: Fred Chartrand/The Canadian Press)
In Wednesday's final speech to Conservative MPs and senators, Ambrose said the party's progress of late is testament to its work over the last 18 months, including forcing the Liberal hand on files like Yazidi refugees or electoral reform.
"There was no guarantee things would turn out this way," she said. "It was up to us in this room."
Others attribute it directly to Ambrose herself, who received accolades across party lines for her time as leader, reflective perhaps of her reputation as a less-than-partisan personality.
During tributes Tuesday in the Commons, Opposition House leader Candice Bergen described how on occasion, Ambrose needed more than just a pep talk before taking on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in question period.
"She (would) look over to one of us and say, 'Quick, say something to make me mad so that I'll look a little more mad,"' Bergen chuckled.
"We will hold the government to account, but there's a way to do that as well."
Changing the tone of the Conservative party was a key goal for Ambrose when she was chosen as interim leader. Whether her successor takes the same approach remains to be seen.
There's only so far the next leader ought to go, said caucus colleague Dianne Watts.
"I don't know that it would be in the best interests of everybody to go back to being hyper-partisan; there is a spectrum of what that looks like," Watts said.
"We are the official Opposition. We will hold the government to account, but there's a way to do that as well."
The party's new leader will be announced May 27; voting is currently underway.
Two days later, the House of Commons resumes for what could be a busy four-week stretch before the summer break; the Liberals are poised to roll out policy and legislation on defence, foreign affairs and public safety.
"The next leader, they've got a longer-term challenge."
All three were signature files for the previous Conservative government. Now the party will be in the position of picking apart the Liberal approach just as they are finding their footing with a new leader.
Ambrose's job was to take some of the shine off the Liberal government, but she had the luxury of not having to equally point out how the Conservatives would do things differently if they were in power, said Jason Lietaer, a former strategist for the party.
Lietaer likened any political points she scored against the government — and score them she did — to "found money."
"The next leader, they've got a longer-term challenge," he said. "They've got to win an election, not just get to the next sign marker on the road."
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