THE annual Manning Centre conference in Ottawa is popularly known as Woodstock for Canadian Conservatives. It is not obvious why. At this year’s edition, held from February 23rd to 25th, booths manned by clean-cut millennials offered pamphlets on such subjects as child discipline and taxing carbon emissions. A few delegates sported “Make America Great Again” caps. Not a man bun was to be seen.

The main business of this year’s gathering was to help decide which of 14 candidates should lead the Conservative Party, which lost an election in October 2015 after almost a decade in power and has been leaderless since. The choice, to be made on May 27th, will determine what sort of opposition the Liberal prime minister, Justin Trudeau, will face. It will set a new course for a party that has governed for 65 of the 150 years since Canada’s creation.

For much of that time, it was hard to tell the two biggest parties apart. The Progressive Conservatives, as they were known from 1942 to 2003, endorsed the welfare state and the multicultural values espoused by the Liberals. That changed under Stephen Harper, who fused the Progressive Conservatives’ “red Toryism” with the prairie populism of the former Reform Party. His merged Conservative Party championed smaller government, lower taxes and devolution of power from the centre to the provinces. Unusually among Western right-of-centre parties, Mr Harper’s Conservatives strongly supported immigration. They won three elections from 2006 to 2011.

But Canadians eventually wearied of the cerebral Mr Harper and came to doubt that his small-government policies would halt the erosion of the middle class. Some were turned off by his refusal to take climate change seriously and by the anti-Muslim bias that crept into the party’s rhetoric. The Conservatives’ core supporters are older, whiter and more rural than most Canadians. Conservatives now govern just three of the ten provinces and are in a “distinct minority” on municipal councils of big towns, points out Preston Manning, an elder statesman whose foundation hosts the conference. “The unvarnished truth is that we are currently in a trough,” he says.

None of the candidates competing for the chance to pull the party out of it would abandon Mr Harper’s legacy. In the Manning Centre debate, one of several in the long leadership contest, all proclaimed their aversion to Mr Trudeau’s tax-and-spend Liberalism and their enthusiasm for developing Canada’s natural resources and for free trade. The aspiring leaders are mostly still “colouring within the lines” sketched out over the past 25 years, says James Farney, editor of a book of essays called Conservatism in Canada. But each brings a different set of crayons.

A touch of orange

Maxime Bernier, a former foreign minister, would give the party a libertarian cast. He supports the most Woodstock-like initiative to appear at the conference: the Free My Booze campaign to end provincial monopolies over sales of alcohol. In keeping with that laissez-faire cause, Mr Bernier advocates ending protection for dairy, egg and poultry farms. Andrew Scheer, a former Speaker of the House of Commons, has conservative positions on social issues, such as abortion, but says he would not impose these on the party.

Two contenders would, in different ways, bring a Trumpian tinge to the Conservatives. Kevin O’Leary, a star of reality television, shook up the race when he entered it in January. Brash and rich, Mr O’Leary revels in being a political outsider and brings a pizzazz that the other contenders lack. He has pushed the party to come up with ambitious plans to enliven the sluggish economy. Unlike Donald Trump, to whom he is often compared, Mr O’Leary enthusiastically backs the legalisation of cannabis, one of Mr Trudeau’s pet projects. His rivals see him as a celebrity interloper (he joined the party last year). But he does not speak French, normally a fatal flaw in an aspiring prime minister.

Closer to Mr Trump in outlook is Kellie Leitch, a paediatric surgeon and former labour minister. She calls for screening immigrants, refugees and even tourists to make sure that they believe in “Canadian values”. Most Conservatives do not seem attracted by such bare-knuckle politics. Frank Buckley, a Canadian-American who has written speeches for Mr Trump, told the conference that he sensed less anger in Canada than in the United States, perhaps because social mobility is still greater.

Just who will emerge from the scrum to become leader of the opposition is impossible to forecast. A recent poll of Conservative voters named Mr O’Leary, Mr Bernier, Dr Leitch and Lisa Raitt, a competent but unexciting ex-minister, as the most popular choices. But the decision will be made by the party’s 85,000 members, who will list the candidates in their order of preference (voters for the least-popular candidates have their lower preferences counted, until one candidate wins a majority). A divisive contender like Dr Leitch may not have broad enough support to prevail.

To win the next national election in 2019 the Conservatives will need an experienced centrist with broad appeal. That would argue for choosing someone like Michael Chong, the son of immigrants from China and the Netherlands, who was minister of intergovernmental affairs under Mr Harper. He is the only reddish Tory in the race. But he was booed for advocating a carbon tax, which is unpopular in Canada’s energy-producing western provinces, the Conservative heartland.

Most of the 14 candidates who took to the stage in Ottawa would have little hope of winning the next election. The Woodstockers left with little sense of who might lead them and where. A booth outside the debate hall sold T-shirts with an image of Mr Trudeau and the legend, “Tell me when it’s over.” The wait may be long.