Peter MacKay on why he lost Conservative leadership and what it means for the party

MacKay ponders Tory loss

As he contemplates a failed Conservative leadership campaign that put the cart before the horse — trying to win a federal election instead of first securing his party — Peter MacKay is reminded of an age-old cliche: "Nice guys finish last."

And while the longtime Tory leader-in-waiting has few regrets, he does worry that the ever-growing influence of social conservatives within the movement could lead to more disappointment at the polls if victor Erin O'Toole can't keep them in check.

In a long and wide-ranging interview with The Canadian Press, MacKay said the examination of his second-place finish in the contest is still underway, but several factors are evident.

The pause forced by the COVID-19 pandemic stopped MacKay's early momentum, and a decision by party organizers to extend the deadline for membership sales gave his rivals time to catch up. He also cited "ring rust" from being out of politics for five years and the immense reach of social media in amplifying minor errors.

But he also acknowledges that the premise upon which he ran his campaign was flawed.

"The plan was in retrospect too much focused on the next steps and not enough on winning the party," MacKay said.

That plan: don't bother with negative attacks on other Conservatives or even the Liberals. Instead, present a new vision for the country. That also meant sidestepping issues dear to some of the most powerful grassroots members of the party: social conservatives.

"When you open the door to a crack of daylight on these social issues it becomes very very difficult to win the country, to present the party as modern, inclusive, as a party that is committed to focusing more on the economy than debating the past and I just made that very clear to my team from the beginning," he said.

"It was exploited to the max, that this was disrespectful, that it wasn't inclusive to social conservatives. Not true, it was the same approach as Stephen Harper."

MacKay believed that clinching the win required what would be needed to win a general election.

So his team focused on selling memberships to disaffected Liberals and to lapsed Tories in ridings where the party hasn't been strong before. In some areas, this paid off: membership growth was strong in the Atlantic provinces and in some urban centres.

But the party uses a points system to choose a leader. Each of the 338 ridings in the country is worth 100 points. How many points a candidate gets is based on their percentage share of the vote. In ridings with tiny member counts, many of which are in Quebec, a handful of members can have an outsized influence on the results.

MacKay's campaign thought it had a lock on Quebec, racing against the clock — and against O'Toole — to mount a massive get-out-the-vote effort in the final days. His team's projections, however, didn't match up against reality, MacKay admitted, and he's asked his team pointed questions to figure out why.

That team was a mix of loyalists from his days with the PCs, newer recruits to the cause under Harper's leadership and a handful of slick campaign operatives credited with delivering victories for conservatives elsewhere in the country.

Tensions within the team led to some missteps, MacKay acknowledged. He downplayed those errors, though they were seized upon by his rivals, like one where in an email he used a derogatory term for a transgender-rights bill.

But he said what really upended things was the COVID-19 pandemic.

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