Former Quebec premier Jean Charest courted by Conservative MP as possible leadership candidate

Former Quebec premier Jean Charest courted by Conservative MP as possible leadership candidate

by Sue Jones
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Jean Charest considered running for the leadership of the Conservative Party of Canada two years ago, but decided against it. Now in what some are calling a “battle for the soul” of the party, Charest is once again being floated as a possible leader.

Jean Charest

Former Premier Jean Charest’s name is once again being floated as a potential leader for the Conservative Party of Canada. (Ivanhoe Demers/Radio-Canada)

Now that a race for the leadership of the Conservative Party of Canada is unofficially under way, former Quebec premier Jean Charest is once again being floated as a possible candidate.

Alain Rayes, MP for Richmond-Arthabaska, who up until yesterday was the party’s Quebec lieutenant, told Radio-Canada’s Tout Un Matin Monday that he had already spoken to Charest about the idea and that he views him as a good candidate.

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Quebec MP Alain Rayes told Radio-Canada Monday that he’d already spoken to Charest about the idea of running for the leadership. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

“He’s a political machine, an exceptional speaker who knows Quebec and who, in my eyes, would be a formidable opponent for Justin Trudeau,” Rayes said.

“Does Jean Charest still have the desire? That’s a question you should ask him,” Rayes said.

“But clearly, I can confirm that for many people in Quebec, Jean Charest could be a strong opponent to face Justin Trudeau in an upcoming campaign.”

Charest will not be granting interviews, his assistant said.

Charest vs. Poilievre?

Rayes resigned his position as the party’s Quebec lieutenant Sunday, saying he would be supporting a candidate in the upcoming leadership race.

“I thought I had a responsibility to get involved in this campaign and to promote the more progressive side of several MPs and members of the party, particularly of Conservatives in Quebec,” Rayes said.

Rayes denied that his resignation was linked to the announcement by MP Pierre Poilievre Saturday that he would be a candidate.

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Conservative MP Pierre Poilievre rises during Question Period, Monday, November 29, 2021 in Ottawa. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

But Rayes said he wants a leader who is “progressive, centre-right economically, and aware of the reality of Quebec” and it’s clear that Poilievre may not fit that description.

Battle ‘for the soul’ of the party

Jean-François Lisée, political analyst and former Parti Québécois leader, told Tout Un Matin Monday that the Conservative party is ideologically split, with Poilievre representing one camp and more progressive potential candidates, such as Charest, another.

“There are anti-Trumps and pro-Trumps,” Lisée said, noting that the former U.S. president has publicly supported the ongoing anti-vaccine mandate protest on Ottawa — and so has Poilievre.

“It’s going to be a leadership race for the soul of the Conservative Party, that’s really it,” he continued.

Former journalist and senator André Pratte agrees.

“Imagine a candidates debate between Mr. Poilièvre and Jean Charest,”  Pratte told Tout Un Matin.

“That would be quite a debate,” he said. “It would be an ideological debate, but also a debate on how to do politics.”

“There is this perception among some members of the Conservative Party that they can’t win the 78 seats in Quebec. There is nothing to do. Quebecers will never, will ever vote for the Conservatives,” Pratte said.

“Others, such as Rayes or perhaps Charest, say ‘no, we need a Conservative base in Quebec and we have to seek it out,'” Pratte continued.

Rules of the race could once again play a big role

Charest was similarly courted during the Conservative’s previous leadership race in 2020 and said at the time he seriously considered running. 

He ultimately decided against it, citing family reasons, some ideological differences with the party, but also the rules of the leadership contest, which he described at the time as “very strict.”

“Basically, the rules were not written for an outside candidate. The deadlines are very tight, it does not give much time to recruit new members and to set up a national organization,” Charest told Radio-Canada in 2020.

Lisée said once again the rules of the the eventual leadership race may play a key role in deciding whether or not Charest decides to enter the race.

“If the vote took place today, Poilievre would win,” Lisée said, since Poilievre already has a solid base of support within the party.

Lisée said the longer the leadership race is, the more time Charest or other moderate candidates might have to recruit new members.

The party’s executive will likely announce the formal rules for the leadership race within a few weeks.

Charest still haunted by corruption investigation

Charest comes with some political baggage. For years Quebec’s anti-corruption squad, known as UPAC, has been investigating Quebec Liberal Party financing during the Charest period.

After deciding not to run in 2020, Charest accused UPAC (a unit that he created while he was premier) of going on a “fishing expedition.”

Later that year he launched a lawsuit against the Quebec government over the investigation, alleging that confidential information about him and his family had been leaked to the media and his privacy had been violated.

The lawsuit and Charest’s history as Quebec Liberal leader could put him at odds with current premier François Legault, whose right-of-centre Coalition Avenir Québec party remains popular despite the pandemic.

Still, even an endorsement by Legault could have limited weight — he told Quebecers before the last federal election that re-electing Justin Trudeau’s Liberals would be dangerous for Quebec. His message failed to win the Conservatives any new seats.

Charest has led the federal party before — when it was the Progressive Conservative Party of Canada — and helped nurse it back to life after it was reduced to just two seats in 1993 election. He was the party’s first francophone leader until 1998, when he left to lead the Quebec Liberal Party.

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