OTTAWA — Mid-way through last week, Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer came home from a day on Parliament Hill and got to talking with one of sons.
He realized, he would tell Conservative MPs and senators at meeting Thursday morning, he had no idea what was going in his child’s life.
Ever since he failed to secure a majority on election night he had known the party might not allow him to stay on as leader.
But the conversation with his teenage son Thomas made him realize the time had come to make a choice about whether he wanted to stay, he told his MPs, according to people who were in the room but, under caucus rules, not authorized to speak publicly about what happened.
The conclusion he would reach, and announce publicly on Thursday, was no.
After rejecting calls for his resignation from within his party for weeks, Scheer said he will step down as soon as his party chooses a successor. His caucus agreed in an emergency meeting at the end of the day.
“Serving as the leader of the party that I love so much has been the opportunity and the challenge of a lifetime,” he said in the House of Commons, “and this was not a decision I came to lightly.”
Questions about Scheer’s political future did begin on election night, when his party couldn’t capitalize on the governing Liberals’ ethics record and a stunning mid-campaign revelation that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had repeatedly dressed up in blackface and brownface as a younger man. The Liberals were reduced to a minority in the House of Commons but held on to power.
After nearly two months, everything came to a head for Scheer in the last week.
“The final decision was taken over the last number of days,” his longtime supporter Chris Warkentin, an Alberta MP, said Thursday.
Watch: Scheer announces he’ll step down as Tory leader.
A few days after that chat with his son, Scheer took his annual trip with friends to watch an NFL game, aiming to cross another stadium off their bucket list. This time they went to Tampa Bay, Fla., to see the Buccaneers barely defeat the Indianapolis Colts, with the trip coming days after his wife Jill’s 40th birthday.
Jill, his wife of over 15 years, had been shouldering much of the burden of looking after their five kids, including driving them daily to and from their private Catholic school in Ottawa.
Friends in Ottawa encouraged Scheer to take some time in the sun, at the game, to think about whether he had the energy to persevere.
The afternoon game meant there was no way he’d make it back to Ottawa in time for question period Monday.
His staff would later be grilled on that decision — with only five sitting days before the House would rise for the Christmas break, why give up a chance to press Prime Minister Justin Trudeau?
The answer they gave was that he had meetings in Toronto.
Scheer had been sitting down with Conservative members and its more senior figures in recent weeks, on a “listening tour” launched after the election to review its hits and misses. He was constantly hearing that his personal views on social issues, and his party’s failure to develop a coherent climate-change policy, were serious blunders, but there was also mounting frustration that not enough appeared to be changing in the wake of the campaign.
Some of that was being told to former Conservative cabinet minister John Baird, who was tasked with doing an external review of the campaign. That work is ongoing, Baird said Thursday.
But high-profile members of the party were publicly calling for Scheer’s head. Campaigns called “SackScheer,” “Scheer Must Go,” and “Conservative Victory” were launched expressly to drive public opinion against him.
A former senior staffer on his campaign, Jamie Ellerton, co-authored a fierce op-ed attacking Scheer’s refusal to enthusiastically and publicly support same-sex marriage.
A trusted senior member of caucus, Ed Fast, refused a seat on the Opposition front benches, saying Scheer must be surrounded by people 100 per cent loyal.
A few cobbled together an effort to try to save him, among them Ontario MP Michael Barrett, expressing frustration that some of the backlash to Scheer had been coming from those who’d actively worked against him before he won the party leadership.
On Wednesday morning, Barrett had said he was confident Scheer was committed to making changes to get the party moving in a stronger direction.
“That’s real leadership,” Barrett said.
But Scheer was struggling to find a chief of staff, and a new director of communications. He fired people from those jobs in November, responding to criticism he was taking too long to make any real change.
To survive a mandatory leadership review at a convention in April he’d need them, and others, to run what would amount to a new leadership campaign. He’d only won the first by a hair over Maxime Bernier, and whether he had enough support among the party’s rank and file to do it again was unclear.
The purpose of the Toronto meetings was to see about hiring a firm to do the outreach and polling for that, said a Conservative source not authorized to publicly discuss an internal party matter. Scheer decided to sign off on the idea.
Still, the moment with his son was stuck in his mind as he returned to Ottawa late Monday.
Questions about children’s education
On Tuesday, word began to circulate about how he was paying for his children’s private school education. A deal had been struck when he won the leadership in 2017 that the party would compensate his family for the costs of moving from Regina.
“All proper procedures were followed and signed off on by the appropriate people,” the executive director of the party, Dustin Van Vugt, said Thursday.
But that some of those funds were being used to cover private Catholic school costs had not previously been disclosed to the stewards of the Conservative Fund, which oversees party fundraising. Conservative Sen. Jean-Guy Dagenais said forcefully on Thursday that Scheer should pay the money back.
The potential fight over that did not appear to be one the Scheers were willing to wage.
“Our party needs someone who can give everything they have. I have always been honest with my colleagues, I have always been honest with everybody, and I know that the road ahead and the stress that would put on my family would mean I could not give them that 100 per cent assurance,” Scheer said in the House.
He gathered his inner circle close on Tuesday and broke the news to them.
That night, the Tories would score a victory when the House of Commons adopted a motion to strike a committee to study Canada-China relations, over the objections of the governing Liberals.
With that wind in their sails, Conservatives headed into their weekly caucus meeting Wednesday morning, unaware that Scheer was intending to tell them he’d decided to step aside. But with news of the new free-trade deal among Canada, the United States and Mexico continuing to emerge that day, he shelved the plan.
A decision was made to gather the caucus together again on Thursday, under the guise of having a briefing on the trade deal. MPs filed in, ready for the discussion.
But then Jill entered as well.
To a shocked room, Scheer would deliver much the same message he would later to deliver to the Commons.
“It has been an incredible challenge for our family to keep up with the pace that is required to lead a caucus and a party into a general election, and my wife Jill has been absolutely heroic,” he said in the House.
“However, in order to chart the course ahead, this party and this movement need someone who can give 100 per cent to the effort. After some conversations with my kids and loved ones, I felt it was time to put my family first.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 12, 2019.