Conservative leader rejected caucus calls to kick Maxime Bernier from caucus
Conservative leadership candidate Maxime Bernier, centre, at the opening of a national caucus meeting, Thursday, January 26, 2017 in Quebec City. (Jacques Boissinot / THE CANADIAN PRESS)
OTTAWA -- A Conservative MP says he wanted Andrew Scheer to kick the openly defiant Maxime Bernier out of the federal caucus last month, but the Tory leader refused, insisting that his outspoken former leadership rival has an important role to play within the party.
The MP, who spoke to The Canadian Press on condition of anonymity for fear of causing additional turmoil within caucus ranks, said he approached Scheer during the June 20 caucus meeting for permission to ask caucus members to vote to have Bernier removed.
"I went to Andrew directly and said ... 'Max lied to us, and I don't think he should remain in caucus,"' the MP said.
But Scheer asked him to stand down, saying he would "keep Max where he is."
Emotions were running high in the Conservative caucus room after Bernier, who represents the Quebec riding of Beauce, posted a controversial chapter of his forthcoming book on his website -- a book he had already agreed to postpone, "for the sake of maintaining harmony in our party."
The chapter accuses Scheer of enlisting "fake Conservatives" for the sole purpose of defeating Bernier, who remains a staunch advocate of ending Canada's supply management system for milk, eggs and poultry -- a program popular with dairy farmers in Quebec.
In April, Bernier promised to shelve the book's publication indefinitely, but the offending chapter resurfaced the following month in the midst of a string of pointed attacks from U.S. President Donald Trump on how Canada treats U.S. dairy producers.
The reappearance of the controversial chapter on Bernier's website triggered a fresh wave of Conservative caucus outrage, culminating in the MP telling Scheer he wanted to take the microphone during the caucus meeting and ask his colleagues to vote to have Bernier removed.
Had Scheer allowed that to happen, it would have opened a rift within the ranks of the Conservative party, said Tim Powers, a Tory strategist and vice-chair of Ottawa-based government relations firm Summa Strategies.
Bernier was stripped of his role in the party's shadow cabinet as innovation critic, but was allowed to remain in caucus. He did not acknowledge repeated requests for comment.
"Scheer knows well enough: if you start to become the architect of rift creation in the Conservative party, you may as well kiss any hopes of winning an election away," said Powers, adding there's "tension, absolutely."
"Yes, 1/8Bernier 3/8 can perhaps be a source of irritation to some of his peers, but equally he does represent views that many conservatives have."
And with the 2019 election looming large, Scheer -- a Saskatchewan MP who's still busy introducing himself to Canadians -- can't afford to lose Bernier, a gregarious veteran who was edged out of the Conservative leadership last year by the narrowest of margins, and who represents a part of the country where the Tories are keen to hold on to support.
Kicking Bernier out of caucus would have meant "huge brand damage" for the party at the worst possible time, said Powers -- a challenge similar to that faced by his predecessor, former prime minister Stephen Harper.
Harper, famous for his rigid caucus discipline, found a way to keep Bernier in the fold. Scheer -- often described by political rivals as "Stephen Harper with a smile" -- is trying to do the same.
The MP who wanted Bernier's ouster expressed confidence they would have had a "fair amount of support," given the number of caucus members who felt deliberately misled.
"There was a fair amount of people that felt that Max had crossed the line."
One Conservative MP accused Bernier of being "incredibly disloyal," said he has "destroyed all of his credibility" and in fact told Scheer he would have booted him from caucus a long time ago. Another said caucus felt Bernier had broken his pledge to the group.
Brock Harrison, Scheer's director of communications, said the leader's office would not comment on internal caucus matters or any private conversations that may have taken place.
"Mr. Bernier continues to be an important member of our national caucus and his perspectives and his expertise are valued," Harrison said.
Many of Bernier's supporters are convinced Scheer removed Bernier from his shadow cabinet as way of smoothing things over with dairy farmers, but Conservative sources insist it's because Bernier broke his promise.
Scheer has largely recovered from any political damage he may have incurred for removing Bernier from his critic's role, said Powers, who acknowledged that the Quebec MP and outspoken libertarian does indeed "march to the beat of his own drum."
"He's the yin to Scheer's yang," he said -- "particularly when it comes to supply management."