Canada’s Conservative Party, in opposition since 2015, are looking for their third permanent leader since former prime minister Stephen Harper. The latest search begins after the Conservative caucus ousted leader Erin O’Toole in a caucus revolt that had been quietly brewing for months but burst into the open early this week.
Social conservatives are an important part of the Conservative base, and are extremely well organized
To understand why and how this happened, you have to go back to the last leadership election that O’Toole won. After Justin Trudeau’s Liberal Party won a big majority in 2015, the Conservatives managed to knock a scandal-plagued Trudeau (recall Trudeau’s blackface revelations) down to a minority in 2019 under leader Andrew Scheer. But despite this fairly solid result, winning the popular vote and gaining nearly 20 seats, the Conservatives resorted to infighting that brought Scheer down.
Scheer, a social conservative, was plagued throughout the campaign by questions about his social conservatism that he was unable to offer clear answers on, and the media consensus that emerged after the election was that the Conservatives simply couldn’t form government with a socially conservative leader. Someone more socially progressive was needed. But social conservatives are an important part of the Conservative base, and are extremely well organized. This angered many, and in a lot of ways these fights have carried over into the revolt that brought down O’Toole.
In the leadership race to replace Scheer, four candidates made the final ballot. Peter MacKay, one of the co-founders of the Conservative Party and an important cabinet minister under Harper, was the frontrunner and was branded as the moderate candidate. There was Erin O’Toole, who ran as a moderate in the 2017 leadership campaign but recognized that in order to win a leadership election he needed to run to the right. He branded himself the “true blue” candidate promising to “take Canada back.”
The other two candidates on the ballot, Leslyn Lewis and Derek Sloan, represented the social conservative wing. Lewis, a black woman with a PhD who is now a member of parliament, came from nowhere to finish in third place, actually led on the second of the vote in terms of raw votes cast, and is a testament to the strength and organizational skills of the socially conservative wing.
This was perceived by much of the party base as a betrayal
O’Toole won not only because he recast himself as the “true blue” candidate, but because in the ranked ballot system he ultimately got most of the down ballot support of the social conservatives to enable him to beat MacKay. But while this might have won him the leadership, it ultimately proved to be his downfall.
He became leader in August 2020. After becoming leader, O’Toole attempted to pivot back towards the more moderate tory that anyone who knew him knew was the real O’Toole. He went out of his way to tell people he was pro-choice and a social progressive. He brought in, almost unilaterally and without really consulting the party membership, a carbon tax in all but name that is a divisive issue for Conservatives. He tried to soften the party image, saying during the election that his Conservative party was “not your father’s Conservative party.”
Unsurprisingly, this was perceived by much of the party base as a betrayal, especially by those who may have supported O’Toole in the leadership election seeing him as the more conservative option. All of this was seemingly done to rectify the weaknesses that ultimately cost the party the 2019 campaign. O’Toole and his team implicitly accepted the dominant media narrative in Canada that the Conservatives can only ever win in Canada now if they become a liberal-lite option.
Being opposition leader is not an easy job, and O’Toole had an even tougher experience than most. Elected leader during a pandemic, he was forced to fight an election barely a year after becoming leader, and did not even meet his entire caucus in person until after the 2021 election. But many of these fissures and tensions would likely have been healed or at least papered over had the Conservatives formed government at the last election. O’Toole and his team were undoubtedly aware this was the gamble they were taking.
Early on in the election, it looked like this gamble might be paying off. The Conservatives released their full platform on the first day of the campaign, and it was a genuinely interesting platform with a lot of new and substantive ideas and policies. They took a lead in the polls and “prime minister Erin O’Toole” looked like a real possibility. But as the campaign wore on, divisive issues like guns and vaccine mandates came to dominate the campaign and helped the Liberals scrape out another minority.
O’Toole vowed to stay on, and he received strong backing from most of his caucus. But plenty of Tories were not happy, and internal battles began almost immediately after the election. A member of the Conservative national council, essentially the governing board of the party, called for an immediate leadership review and accused O’Toole of having “betrayed” conservative principles.
Not long after, a Conservative senator named Denise Batters, who is well known and well liked in Tory circles, started a petition to bring forward the party leadership review of O’Toole which was not scheduled to take place until August 2023. She was booted from the Tory caucus (though she remained part of the Conservative Senate caucus) in a highly polarizing move that has only deepened tensions within the party.
The leadership prize may be one worth coveting
But in hindsight the poison pill that was planted shortly following the election was the Conservative caucus adopting the Reform Act, legislation passed in the Harper years to try and strengthen parliament at the expense of leaders and their offices. The Tories had adopted partial aspects of the Reform Act before, which enabled caucus to control who was and wasn’t a member of the caucus, but this was the first time they ever adopted the most contentious part of the legislation, namely giving caucus the legal power to dump the leader if it voted to do so. This was how the caucus was able to remove O’Toole on Wednesday.
In the last few months, support for O’Toole from different wings of the party seems to have quietly eroded. A fight over legislation banning conversion therapy was one part of this, particularly the way that senior leadership reportedly sprang a surprise unanimous consent motion in parliament to quickly rush it through, much to the surprise of most of the caucus and especially to an important former supporter of O’Toole and important social conservative within the party, Garnett Genuis, who happened to be (conveniently for party leadership) out of the country on party business at the time. Genius was one of the key supporters of O’Toole who got him elected, but was one of many who appears to have flipped away from O’Toole towards the end.
In the last week of O’Toole’s leadership, a truck convoy opposing Covid measures that has essentially set up camp in parts of downtown Ottawa around Parliament Hill has divided the caucus, with O’Toole constantly shifting positions on it to the satisfaction of absolutely no one. This inability to clearly define and stake out a position was ultimately probably what ended his leadership. As I wrote last week in the National Post, “It has become harder and harder to defend O’Toole because it is increasingly hard to know what you’re defending when you do so. O’Toole seems unable, or unwilling, to clearly articulate positions and even when he does he often ends up backtracking a few days later.”
With O’Toole out, the Conservatives have selected a Manitoba MP and the deputy leader of the party, Candice Bergen, as the interim leader. The race to replace O’Toole is, as of right now, up in the air, with rules and candidates all still to be announced. The presumptive frontrunner is the shadow finance minister, Pierre Poilievre. He is extremely popular amongst the Tory base, unapologetic, and easily the party’s most gifted and talented communicator. He has strong name recognition already, and if he runs will be the clear favourite. Other names being thrown around are previous candidates Peter MacKay and Leslyn Lewis, current MPs Michelle Rempel-Garner and Michael Chong, and the mayor of Brampton Patrick Brown.
Whoever ends up being chosen as the next leader will have a formidable task ahead of them. Their job will be to unite a fractious party, one that has seen a fair share of tumult and infighting since the days of Stephen Harper. But if they can do this, they may well have a serious shot at forming government. The Liberal government will likely have been in power for close to a decade by the next election, and despite winning is far from popular and came into government with the lowest ever percentage of the popular vote. The Tories may be in chaos right now, but there are reasons for optimism and to think the leadership prize may be one worth coveting.
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