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Artillery Row

British lessons for Canadian politics

What can the experiences of the Labour Party teach Pierre Poilievre?

Little fanfare was made of Rishi Sunak’s concession speech. It was Keir Starmer (Labour Party) 1, Rishi Sunak (Conservative Party) 0. But there would be no lightweight rematch.

Despite a Fraser Nelson commentary, calling Sunak’s speech “classy, generous and a model of the British system at its best,” Sunak promptly left the ring. His tenure as premier ended with a shrug.

This followed an election campaign without energy or excitement. If the election were a marathon, the contestants all hit the wall half-way through, rather than in the final miles. Writing in this magazine on 9 June, Tim Dawson put it well: “Rishi Sunak losing will be a blessed relief.”

Looking across the pond, Canadians are gearing up for an election set to take place on 20 October, 2025. At the time of writing, polling website 338 Canada predicts a Conservative majority of 213 seats compared to the Liberals’ 72.

Ipsos puts the Conservatives at 43 per cent and the Liberals at 24 per cent: a gap like that of the UK Labour and Tory parties over the last two years.

Some Canadians envisage a Liberal Party decimation in 2025. Others see the election as being much closer than polls suggest. On the surface, there are many overlaps between the UK and Canadian election run-up periods.

Now, following a byelection loss in the long-time Liberal-held Toronto-St. Paul riding, pressure is mounting on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau with calls for him to step down. But Trudeau insists that he will not resign, and there is no 1922 Committee-like mechanism to force such a change.

There is much to play for, and it is impossible to tell what the result will be.

In the meantime, Canada can provide encouragement for Brits asking ‘What next?’ – moving on from recent years. But there is much that Canadians can learn from the recent British experience.

What are some immediate lessons for the Conservative Party of Canada in the wake of the UK election? And what should British readers consider as they watch Canada?

Here are three of them:

1. Do not underestimate Trudeau. 

Unlike Sunak, Trudeau is a proven winner. He is also electable.

In Canadian circles, Trudeau may be described as the “Little Prince” or as “Boy Wonder”. He is far from an intellectual, discounted instead as a “drama teacher” or “ski instructor”.

But his experience growing up around a Prime Minister father, combined with his sense of entitlement for the Prime Minister role, and his fighting spirit, make him a formidable foe.

This is true even if he and the Liberal Party are exhausted. Trudeau will not go quietly into the night as was the case with Sunak.

So, ignore the rumours. Trudeau will not resign. Not under any circumstances. He will fight to the end, and he will fight hard.

Trudeau’s winning track record and campaigning ability cannot, and should not, be underestimated. Sunak, despite his impressive corporate career, is not cut from the same cloth.

The Little Prince has politics in his blood and a name-brand that many Canadians still value — even if they are reluctant to say it. The nineteen-point gap between the Canadian Conservatives and Liberal Party is a much smaller gap than the identical polling gap between UK Labour and Tories in this recent election.

2. Keep party discipline but attack aggressively. 

Canadian Opposition Leader Pierre Poilievre is a shrewd politician with impressive rhetorical ability. He keeps things simple. He is quick on his feet. And he has well-rehearsed attack lines. He knows what he is doing.

Yet, if he has a superpower, it is his discipline. Poilievre keeps to the message just as the Canadian Conservatives under Stephen Harper kept to the message. His “Axe the Tax” message on the Canadian carbon tax is a prime example. Opponents and pundits underestimate Poilievre’s smarts at their own peril.

In comparison, the opposing UK Labour Party was roundly criticised for the lack of detail provided in its manifesto. But the party maintained high levels of party discipline. They removed many fringe elements of the party in the run-up to the election. They rooted out antisemitism.

The deliberately vague manifesto promises helped to keep competing factions of the party satisfied, and meant that Labour did not have to take unnecessary risks.

Labour, like Poilievre so far, stuck to its script.

The result? A win, but an underwhelming one. Labour claimed just 33.8 per cent of the vote — barely more than its vote share in 2019 under Corbyn and less than its vote share in 2017. Labour did not so much as win the election as the Tories lost it.

Labour’s safe approach was possible because British conservatives were divided by Conservative and Reform options. Without this division, Starmer’s safety would have led to a loss.

The Canadian Conservatives will not have such a luxury. A play-it-safe approach will be a losing one should the Liberals overcome internal wobbles and display unity. Which they surely will.

Poilievre’s aggressive, attack-style approach is the right one in overcoming a Liberal Party that views itself as governing Canada by divine right. The Liberals – advisors, staff and MPs – believe governing is for them. Such belief is powerful, never to be underestimated.

Poilievre will need to maintain discipline, but combined with his proactive style, to overcome a Liberal Party and Prime Minister throwing the kitchen sink at the campaign to keep in power.

3. Maintaining high levels of energy will be a challenge. 

The psychological challenge for Labour in the run-up to the July election was staying focused and prepared to begin a campaign at a moment’s notice. Such vigilance can easily burn a team or a person out, possibly underestimating the mental and physical energy needed to maintain constant alertness.

Even with the early election, it was clear that Labour was tired. Keir Starmer and his team’s manifesto, debates and public appearances failed to capture public attention, as reflected in the few election votes.

In Canada, there will not be an early snap election. Trudeau will wait until 20 October 2025 or close, banking that the Canadian public will itself grow tired and forgetful of his failures. They will bet that Canadians will opt for the same old, rather than for something new, when casting their ballots.

Trudeau and his team are experts in delaying and obfuscating, and this tactic has worked wonders in the past. There are fewer better than Trudeau and team on this on the planet.

The challenge for Poilievre and his team will be keeping fresh over the next 16 months, rather than burning themselves out. Trudeau, with his superior experience, will bank on a delayed election wearing out his opponent. This is a psychological game.

The challenge for Poilievre is not so much political as it is mental — keeping sharp and aggressive over an extended period. How do you find ways to renew yourself and stay on your game, when your opponent is trying to wait you out?

It is like the goalkeeper in British football taking a slow walk to the net to give the penalty taker a few more seconds to think, getting in their own head. Or “freezing the kicker” as we say in American and Canadian football, the opposing team calling a timeout to disrupt the kicker’s concentration.

There is no question about it — Pierre Poilievre and the Canadian Conservatives are in an enviable position 16 months out from the Canadian election.

They have been diligent, smart and aggressive in style, where each of these qualities has been needed. But the beast they are facing is levels above that of Sunak and the divided UK Conservatives.

The challenge is not to be underestimated, in political and psychological terms.

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