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Rob Shaw: BC United knows not who holds leverage in potential Conservative alliance

The strategy of condescension towards BC Conservatives is backfiring for BC United
BC Conservative Leader John Rustad | Adrian Lam, Times Colonist

There are no shortage of hurdles facing the BC United and Conservative parties in their ongoing merger talks — money, leadership, candidates and more — but one of the largest remains the attitude of the United party itself, which has gravely misread the situation for months.

The mess that’s now sinking the party is one of its own making, and can be largely traced back to the decisions it made around banning conservative blogger Aaron Gunn from the party leadership race in 2021, and ejecting John Rustad from caucus in 2022.

Yet up until a sudden burst of self-reflection this week, brought on by yet another in a series of calamitous polls, there was not a hint from United that it had recognized the error of its ways.

“I don't spend much time, frankly, thinking about the BC Conservatives,” United Leader Kevin Falcon said Nov. 30. “They’ve always been there. They've always been a bit of a thorn in our side. That's OK.”

The Conservatives now are less of a thorn and more of a chainsaw. Allies of Gunn have taken over the party and are responsible for its skilled, quick-moving positioning. Rustad has proven to be a far more able politician than anyone ever gave him credit for.

But Falcon’s comment speaks to the months of mistaken United high-handedness, squandering time in which legitimate merger talks could have occurred.

Rustad now holds the better hand in the political poker game. His polling numbers — ephemeral as polling may be — are consistent enough over several months to validate his position as trouncing United in popularity.

Why would he, or the Conservatives, budge at this point? What’s in it for them? It’s a question United has not answered.

The condescension extended into this week, at a press conference with Falcon on Thursday. While Falcon professed interest in a “reasonable discussion to see if we can find common ground,” he also buried the party’s candidates as fringe extremists and repeatedly suggested Conservatives were only successful by accident.

“If he thinks that his support is because there's been this genuine enthusiasm for John Rustad and whatever policies they talk about, that's fine, he can believe that,” said Falcon.

“But I think he, in a quiet moment, might think, ‘Gee, maybe it has something to do with Pierre Poilievre’s popularity.’ Which is a totally separate party. But they happen to have the same name. And I think that voter confusion will clear out by the time the election rolls around.”

The idea that sheer luck is filling the sails of the Conservatives may help United members sleep at night. But Rustad has not been sitting there lazily watching his polling numbers rise.

He’s been capitalizing on the situation by crisscrossing the province to hold rallies at every legion, community centre, coffee shop, parade and cultural gathering that will have him. In many cases, he achieves an impressive turnout.

Rustad’s held at least 100 events in the last two months in 24 different communities, plus attended the legislature. It’s a travel schedule that would put any United MLA to shame. Party fundraising numbers are rising. Some impressive names have joined as candidates.

Conservatives consider it a slap in the face whenever United discounts their hard work as stupid happenstance. Yet, United does it again and again. Every time, it chips away at the goodwill required to get a co-operative deal.

The same can be said for Conservative party strategists. They’ve been running circles around United in the digital arena, better and more quickly aligning the party with the popular messaging of Poilievre and putting Conservatives days ahead of United on big topics.

So they bristle when they are approached at public events by the old guard of the BC Liberal party, who look down upon what they are doing and suggest they “do what’s right” for the free enterprise movement by packing up their things and slinking home to the United party that rejected them.

Who in their right mind would accept that kind of deal?

United has chosen to ignore the deep resentment Rustad holds against Falcon, as well as other top MLAs who ostracized him. It has underestimated the same resentment held by Conservative strategists against the United party apparatus that blacklisted Gunn.

None of them are willing to quit just because Falcon, Gordon Campbell, Jimmy Pattison, Chip Wilson or some other business bigwig suggests they do so. And they aren’t particularly motivated by the idea of defeating the NDP just so a bunch of former Liberals who shunned them can arrogantly take the reins of power again, pushing them off to the side like before.

United seems convinced that it can ignore and insult the Conservatives into submission. So far, it has backfired.

A more serious approach to co-operation will probably involve putting some apologies on the table, a few party heads on the chopping block and clearing off some of the deadwood in key ridings to make way for the Conservatives.

There are no signs of any of that. And so there are no signs the talks are going anywhere, yet.

Rob Shaw has spent more than 16 years covering B.C. politics, now reporting for CHEK News and writing for Glacier Media. He is the co-author of the national bestselling book A Matter of Confidence, host of the weekly podcast Political Capital, and a regular guest on CBC Radio.

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