OTTAWA (AFP) - Canada's Conservative leader Andrew Scheer, facing internal party divisions and a barrage of criticism for failing to unseat a weakened Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in October elections, announced Thursday (Dec 12) he was stepping down.
"I just informed my colleagues in the Conservative caucus that I will be resigning as leader," Scheer told the House of Commons, triggering a contest to succeed him only two years after he took on the role.
The party is "far too important for one individual," he said, acknowledging internal strife and growing calls for him to quit but vowing to remain until a new leader is selected in the coming months.
Scheer's surprise resignation, capping two months of pressure to quit, followed the completion of a review of the Conservatives' campaign efforts that has not yet been released.
In parliament, other party leaders delivered brief remarks thanking Scheer for his public service. Trudeau hugged him and shook his hand.
Reserved, fiscally prudent and a devout Catholic whose opposition to abortion and gay marriage goes against the Canadian grain, Scheer was largely an enigma at the start of the campaign, despite representing a district in Canada's big-sky prairies since 2004.
During the campaign, described by Trudeau as one of the nastiest in Canadian history, Scheer painted himself as an everyman: a minivan-driving father of five who enjoys a beer, watching football (his wife's younger brother plays in the Canadian Football League) and "The Simpsons" television series.
Assailing Trudeau daily for meddling in the prosecution of engineering giant SNC-Lavalin and a carbon tax that he said would hurt Canada's energy sector, he often came across as irate.
The pace over six weeks, Scheer said, took a toll on his family and his wife Jill, whom he called "heroic."
"In order to chart the course ahead, this party needs a leader who can give 100 per cent to this effort. So after a conversation with my kids, my loved ones, I felt it was time to put my family first," he said.
MISSED OPEN NET BREAKAWAY
The Conservatives picked up 26 additional seats in the lower chamber in October's vote, while the Liberals were reduced to a governing minority.
But Scheer's failure to clearly stake out positions on abortion and gay marriage and his pro-oil stance earned him strong rebukes from pundits and party members alike.
Trudeau, beset by ethics scandals and internal party feuding, was believed to be at his weakest ever and suddenly beatable as his support plunged to its lowest level in four years.
After the ballots were counted, former Conservative foreign minister Peter MacKay characterized Scheer's failure to capitalize as "like having a breakaway on an open net and missing the net."
He told a panel in the US capital Washington that Scheer's beliefs - highlighted by the Liberals in the early days of the campaign - "hung around (his) neck like a stinking albatross, quite frankly."
Scheer tried to stem the negative appraisals, firing his two top aides soon after the election. But it failed to appease critics.
Others warned that changing leaders when snap elections could come at any time would be foolhardy.
Conservative insiders, however, noted that none of the political parties were ready for another round, still licking their wounds and needing first to refill their war chests.
Better to dump Scheer and pick a new leader now rather than wait until a leadership review scheduled for April, they argued.
In a final outgoing remark, Scheer urged "fiscal conservatives, Red Tories, social conservatives, libertarians, Quebec nationalists and conservatives in rural Canada, urban Canada, east and west" to stick together to defeat Trudeau in the next election.
"Let's stay united," he said.