Some Additional Thoughts on the 2019 Election: When Should a Party Leader Resign?

The last few days have featured a plethora of news articles calling Andrew Scheer’s leadership of the Conservative Party of Canada into question. Ipsos-Reid claims that 63% of Canadians want him to resign[1] (though given that only 34.4% of Canadians voted Conservative this week, that inflated figure seems rather self-serving). The Globe and Mail and the Toronto Star ominously reports that the “knives are out for Scheer after a disappointing election night.[2] Most damningly of all, the Star quoted a “high-ranking Conservative involved in the campaign in Ontario” who likened Scheer to failed Progressive Conservative Prime Minister Joe Clark: “This was a bad campaign. Scheer is the 21st-century Joe Clark.” The Star helpfully explained its younger readers that Joe Clark “refer[s] to the former Tory leader who was briefly prime minister 40 years ago.” If you will permit me resort to cliché, sometimes less is more; I doff my cap to this brilliantly understated dismissal. (In contrast, I could only manage a woefully bloated critique of Clark in 2017).

The Star has also reported that “Stephen Harper is quietly counselling Conservatives to remain calm after Andrew Scheer’s election loss on Monday.”[3] (Do you also notice that the Star tacitly accepts Scheer’s own argument from last week that the party which wins a plurality of seats should be in government?) The CBC started promoting the movement to oust Scheer as party leader under suggestive headlines like, “Conservatives Reviewing Election Near-Miss as Andrew Scheer Makes Pitch to Stay on as Leader.”[4] Matt Gurney spoke to a “Conservative official” for TVO’s promised three-part coverage of the election. The anonymous interviewee blamed the Conservative Party’s lower support in Ontario and Quebec relative to out West on Scheer’s social conservatism. The unnamed official ominously concluded:

The party needs to have a tough conversation with itself. We need to look in the mirror and ask how we’re going to do better next time. But Scheer doesn’t want that conversation. His team is selling this as a step toward victory. There’s going to be a convention and leadership review early next year, and they’re going to be 100 per cent focused on surviving that, not on winning the next election. And that’s bad. If we’re going to make changes, we should make them now. Immediately.[5]

The “Conservative official” mocked Scheer’s “selling this as a step toward victory.” But isn’t that precisely what just happened? The incumbent Liberals went from a majority to a plurality, after all.

By this logic that the party leader must resign after failing to lead the party to a parliamentary majority in one election, Stephen Harper should have resigned as leader of the Conservative Party of Canada in 2004, when in the 38th general election the Conservatives only reduced the Liberals to a plurality in a minority parliament; Harper would then never have gone on to become prime minister in 2006 – a notion which his critics would no doubt find consoling. We should, however, keep history in mind. In only a handful of instances since Confederation have political parties succeeded in limiting each other to one majority parliament each in consecutive elections. For example, the Pacific Scandal, Sir John A. Macdonald’s downfall, and his subsequent political comeback produced some oscillations from one majority parliament to another between the Conservatives (Liberal-Conservatives, as they were then known) and the Liberals in the 1870s: Conservatives under Macdonald in 1872, Liberals under Mackenzie in 1874, and the Conservatives under Macdonald again in 1878. (Although even in 1872, the Conservatives had won a 2nd consecutive majority relative to the Dominon’s first elections in 1867, so perhaps only 1874 and 1878 count for my purposes here). fThe last such set of elections comes from the 1930s. R.B. Bennett’s Conservatives won a majority in 1930, at the start of the Great Depression, and Mackenzie King’s Liberals gained a majority in 1935, after Bennett’s focus on Imperial preference in trade and a last desperate attempt to emulate FDR’s New Deal in the dying months of his mandate failed.

The party system of the Province of Canada from 1841 to 1866, fragmented along linguistic lines and only loosely conglomerated on ideological grounds, did not lend itself to these kinds of decisive oscillations from one election to the next, but perhaps the election of 1848 offers one other such dramatic reverse of political fortune when the liberal Reformers of Robert Baldwin and Sir Louis-Hippolyte Lafontaine trounced the conservative opposition 55 to 24. In all other instances of changes of party in power in Canada at the federal level, either the incumbent party had won at least two consecutive elections before voters gave a parliamentary majority to the other party, or a minority parliament happened in between, as if to ease Canadians into the transition.

For example, in 1957, the Progressive Conservatives won a plurality, and St. Laurent resigned the premiership, marking the end of a Liberal dynasty of 22 years which saw the Dominion through the second half of the Depression, the Second World War, the founding of the UN, NATO, and the first stage of the Cold War (i.e., pre-Cuban Missile Crisis), and a bountiful post-War prosperity. Not until the next snap election in 1958 did Diefenbaker led his party to a massive parliamentary majority. Diefenbaker similarly gave way to Pearson through the transition of minority parliaments elected in 1962 (with a Conservative plurality) and 1963 (with a Liberal plurality). In 2004, the newly unified Conservative Party of Canada ended a decade of horrendous vote-splitting on the Right and held the Liberals to a plurality in a minority parliament. The Conservatives then won a plurality themselves in 2006, a larger plurality still in 2008, and, finally, a majority in 2011. In recent years, Alberta has replicated the 1930-1935 pattern – Rachel Notley led the New Democrats to a majority in 2015, and Jason Kenney led the United Conservatives to a majority in 2019 – and so has New Brunswick with strange (alarming?) consistency, oscillating from a Liberal majority in 2006, to Conservative majority in 2010, to another Liberal majority in 2014, and, most recently, to a Conservative plurality in 2018. But nothing matches this hasty bipolarity at the federal level, where regional divides assert themselves and make majorities more difficult.

Conservatives and their apparent allies in the press who believed that Scheer should had to led them to at least a plurality and at best a majority or else assume the mantle of abject failure and resign the party leadership have simply not taken the obvious lessons from Canadian political history. The fact remains that Andrew Scheer led the Conservatives to win a plurality of the popular vote (34.3% versus 33.1% for the Liberals) and an additional 26 seats in the House of Commons from dissolution (95 to 121). That performance merits at least one more election – especially in a minority parliament which, as Canadian political history also shows, almost certainly will not last until the next statutorily scheduled general election in 2023. Only Canada’s first minority parliament, elected in 1921, lasted four years; the rest lasted from less than one to two and a half years. The Conservative Party of Canada probably could not even hold a proper leadership election within two years. And even if they did, they would have to put forward another unknown leader to voters in the next election.

Strangely, even though Jagmeet Singh presided over an objective loss for the New Democratic Party, going from 39 seats at dissolution to only 24 in this election, along with a corresponding loss of about 4% of the popular vote, few have called for his resignation, either inside or outside the party. (Googling “calls for Jagmeet Singh to resign” yielded no news articles suggesting that Singh should resign the leadership of the New Democratic Party, even though he presided over a loss of both seats and the popular vote; curiously, however, those same search terms called up news stories on why Scheer should resign.) Perhaps New Democrats merely understand that, at least at the federal level, they must learn to accept failure and take it in stride. Or perhaps they do not see losing seats and a share of the popular vote as a failure at all. If anything, New Democrats see this sort of defeat not as an indictment against their leader or platform, but merely the fault of a majoritarian electoral system with a healthy dose of false consciousness mixed in. (It should be noted that successful provincial New Democrats in the Prairie Provinces do not seem to object to single-member plurality).

Indeed, New Democratic leaders across Canada have perfected the art of cloaking concession speeches in crowns of laurels, delivering long-winded victory speeches upon suffering electoral defeat. I first noticed this tendency in Jack Layton in 2011, though provincial leaders would go on to surpass his legacy. Andrea Horwath in Ontario last year declared, “From the very start of this campaign, people wanted change, and I could not be more proud that we offered a positive vision,” omitting that Ontarians wanted change in the unmistakeable corpulent form of Doug Ford and his Progressive Conservatives and not from her party.[6] Wab Kinew, leader of the New Democratic Party of Manitoba, took this sort of fatuous solipsism to new extremes a few weeks ago, observing, “I don’t think we were defeated tonight, and the sign that many Manitobans agree are all the New Democrat MLAs elected today.” Kinew neglected to mention that the Progressive Conservatives won their second consecutive majority.[7]

If they didn’t have to resign, why should Scheer?


[1] Rachael D’Amore, “63% of Canadians Believe Scheer Should Resign For Not Winning Election: Ipsos Exit Poll,” Global News, 23 October 2019.

[2] Alex Boutilier and Robert Benzie, “Knives Out for Scheer After Disappointing Election Night,” Toronto Star, 22 October 2019.

[3] Alex Boutilier and Robert Benzie, “Stephen Harper Urges Calm Among Conservatives After Election Loss,” Toronto Star, 23 October 2019.

[4] Katie Simpson, “Conservatives Reviewing Election Near-Miss as Andrew Scheer Makes Pitch to Stay on as Leader,” CBC News, 23 October 2019.

[5] Matt Gurney, “Election Post-Mortem, Part 1: A Conservative Insider Explains How His Party Got It So Wrong,” 23 October 2019.

[6] Rebecca Joseph, “The Story of the Ontario NDP’s 2018 Election Campaign,” Global News, 7 June 2018.

[7] Kristin Annable, “Manitoba NDP in Celebratory Mood Despite Another Electoral Defeat,” CBC News, 10 September 2019.


About J.W.J. Bowden

My area of academic expertise lies in Canadian political institutions, especially the Crown, political executive, and conventions of Responsible Government; since 2011, I have made a valuable contribution to the scholarship by having been published and cited extensively. I’m also a contributing editor to the Dorchester Review and a member of the editorial board of the Journal of Parliamentary and Political Law.
This entry was posted in History of British North America, Political Parties. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Some Additional Thoughts on the 2019 Election: When Should a Party Leader Resign?

  1. Alex Sloat says:

    Regarding this section:
    > In only one set of elections since Confederation have two consecutive majority parliaments given those majorities to two different parties; R.B. Bennett’s Conservatives won a majority in 1930, at the start of the Great Depression, and Mackenzie King’s Liberals gained a majority in 1935, after Bennett’s focus on Imperial preference in trade and a last desperate attempt to emulate FDR’s New Deal in the dying months of his mandate failed.

    I’m not sure exactly what you’re trying to say. Trudeau won a majority in 2015 following Harper’s in 2011, most obviously, so it can’t just be about picking up one majority from another. Are you saying that only once has it gone from Party A gaining government with a majority to Party B gaining government with a majority? If so, a) you’re forgetting 1874-1879 and 1980-1984, and b) that seems like it’s tough to generalize, because of a small sample set.

    Here’s my count: Out of 42 elections post-1867, 15 have switched governing party(counting the 1917 Unionists as Tories, and the 1926 election as a re-election of King instead of a defeat of Meighen) while 27 have been re-elections. Of the switches, 4 (1958, 1963, 1979, and 2006) have been minority governments, while 11 have been majorities. If you limit it to the 3+ party era of 1921-present, that’s 11 switches and 19 re-elections, and 7/11 switches had majorities. We still tend to elect new leaders to 24 Sussex with a majority more often than a minority.

    On an unrelated note, it’s good to see that you’re still writing. My RSS feed didn’t have anything new from you for a long time, so I thought you’d stopped, but maybe it was just buggy.


    • I see what you mean. Yes, you are correct on both counts, of my previously jumbled wording as well as my having omitted the elections of 1872, 1874, and 1878. But I’m not forgetting the elections in the early 1920s, nor those in 1979 and 1980, because I’m looking only at majority parliaments.

      I believe that I have now fixed that paragraph and better articulated what I was trying to say the first time.


I invite reasonable questions and comments; all others will be prorogued or dissolved.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s