05/30/2017 04:16 EDT | Updated 06/01/2017 19:48 EDT

Conservative caucus embraces Scheer as leader, presents united front to Liberals

OTTAWA — Conservative MPs who weathered months of friendly political fire from fellow leadership rivals trained their sights back on the Liberal benches Monday as they rallied around newly elected leader Andrew Scheer on Parliament Hill.

Scheer began his tenure as Opposition leader surrounded by cheering caucus members who gathered to hear their new boss rally his troops — a speech in which he wasted no time depicting the governing party as out-of-touch elites.

His call to arms urged his fellow MPs to look past their leadership scars and form a united front against the Trudeau Liberals, invoking the name of former prime minister John Diefenbaker to hammer home his point.

"Dief the Chief" was accused in 1967 of being preoccupied with the interests of "hardworking Canadians," said Scheer, a Saskatchewan MP best known for his non-partisan tenure as Commons Speaker.

Diefenbaker's response? "'I can't help that,' he said — 'I'm one of them.' And that's as true of our party today as it was 50 years ago," Scheer said to resounding cheers.

"We're the party of everyday Canadians who work hard, who make sacrifices to secure a better future for their kids. That's who we are, that's who we fight for — that's never going to change.

"The Liberals can take their cues from the cocktail circuit. We will take ours from the minivans, from the soccer fields, from the legion halls and the grocery stores."

Later Monday, the Conservatives cheered lustily as the genial, friendly-faced Scheer made his debut during question period, targeting the government over soaring budget deficits, the overseas fight against terrorism and higher payroll taxes.

But it was Scheer's fellow candidates — Maxime Bernier, Erin O'Toole, Brad Trost, Michael Chong and Kellie Leitch, among others — who stole the show, each one letting loose on the Liberals with pointed questions of their own.

Leitch likened the government's infrastructure bank to "Gomery 2.0," a reference to the Liberal sponsorship scandal of 2004. O'Toole tweaked Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan's infamous claim to be a military "architect." And Chong said the government's choice of a former Ontario Liberal as languages commissioner "does not pass the partisan smell test."

Bernier, who went down to defeat Saturday by a single percentage point after leading each of the previous 12 ballots, chose not to speak to reporters Monday, a spokesman citing his desire to stay out of the spotlight.

Tory MPs cheered, hugged and shook Bernier's hand prior to the start of Monday's meeting. Scheer singled him out during his speech, a show of solidarity the caucus acknowledged with a standing ovation for the second-place finisher. 

Bernier responded by giving Scheer a thumbs-up.

"We're a team," said O'Toole, who fell out of contention on the penultimate ballot. "There's victory when there's unity, and I think every MP is united behind Andrew Scheer, who I think will contrast very nicely to Justin Trudeau."

Other candidates said they would keep pushing ideas they tested in the campaign, even if they were controversial or no-goes for Scheer, a social conservative who has indicated he'd rather keep the party's various factions together than push hot buttons.

Kellie Leitch, suggested she won't abandon the idea of a values test for new immigrants. And Brad Trost, another Saskatchewan MP and social conservative, said Scheer will have to decide what to do about issues such as abortion.

Chong promised to keep pushing the unpopular idea of a carbon tax, a position that often garnered boos and catcalls during leadership debates. Scheer has made it clear he would repeal the Liberal carbon pricing plan if elected prime minister.

"It's a big-tent Conservative party with a diversity of views," Chong said.

"You saw that on the floor of the convention in the way the vote broke out, so I'm looking forward to working with the new leader."

The political stakes have changed for the Liberals, said Conservative strategist Alise Mills, who noted Scheer is younger than Trudeau, and with more experience than the prime minister had when he took over the Liberal party.

The Liberals are also aware the political playing field is different.

In a fundraising email Sunday, they pointed out the Conservatives just finished their leadership race, a time when parties can connect with more people, welcome new members and raise more money, and Liberals asked for equal support.

"We now know who our competition is — and all of our progress for a stronger middle class is at stake," the email said.  

People close to Scheer's campaign said he struck no deals during the leadership race about who might get what role in a Conservative shadow cabinet.

They say it's likely he'll leave the current organizational structure in place over the summer and return with a refreshed bench for the fall sitting of Parliament, scheduled to begin Sept. 18.