Deja Vu: Conservatives Doomed Again With New Leader O’Toole

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One person who should be overjoyed with the Conservative Party’s choice of Erin O’Toole is surely Justin Trudeau. After insisting they learned from their previous mistake in choosing Andrew Scheer, the Conservatives have actually done the same thing again, and for the same reasons, almost ensuring the party will end up in opposition once more after the next election. 

Scheer, it will be recalled, narrowly won the leadership over Maxime Bernier, the frontrunner, with a campaign focused on two target groups. First, he positioned himself as the second choice of the powerful social conservative wing of the party, who transferred their votes to him when their flagbearers fell off the list. Second, he took much of the Quebec vote by recruiting new party members in the many ridings in that province where Conservatives are an endangered species, knowing that each riding has an equal weight in the leadership vote process regardless of the number of members. In the end a few hundred dairy farmers, intent on keeping the marketing boards that Bernier opposed, delivered the province, and the leadership, to Scheer.  

These tactics worked well for Scheer in the short term by handing him the party leadership, but they proved to be a serious impediment to success with the Canadian electorate. As a genuine social conservative himself, and one acutely aware that he owed his leadership to the substantial group of like-minded activists in the party, he proved incapable of reassuring voters that he would not resurrect the right-to-life issue, backpedal on LGBTQ rights or same-sex marriage, or introduce other problematic moral concerns if elected. Coupled with his failure to offer an alternative approach to the Trudeau government on environmental issues, he made little progress in Ontario. Meanwhile in Quebec, his mediocre command of the French language reinforced these problems in a province also obsessed with ‘secularite’. This proved fatal for a party that must take one of these two provinces at a minimum, along with its western base, in order to win.

Almost every Conservative commentator after the 2019 election defeat concluded that the party would have to drop the social conservative rhetoric, find a meaningful environmental platform and generally move more towards the centre of the political spectrum if the party were to have any hope of winning the next time. This message was clearly understood by Peter McKay, who launched his campaign to replace Scheer by sounding more like the old Progressive Conservative wing of the party from whence he came.

Yet here was Erin O’Toole, originally running a distant second to frontrunner McKay, adopting the same strategy as Scheer. Seen by many in the party as middle-of-the-road moderate during his time as an MP in Ottawa, O’Toole suddenly developed a hardline “true blue” platform for the leadership contest, presenting himself as a rigid Harper Conservative and someone willing to “respect” the social conservative viewpoint. (At the same time many analysts believe McKay’s reference to Scheer’s socon views as an “albatross” around the party’s neck in the last election dealt a lethal blow to his chances, reinforcing O’Toole’s strategy.)  Similarly, O’Toole also recruited many new party members among opponents of gun control and other right-wing hot button issues in rural Quebec, taking over ridings where the Conservative presence was either minimal or non-existent.

The result? O’Toole received the enthusiastic support of Alberta premier Jason Kenney, the well-known former Harper minister, and the second choice ranking of the two social conservative leadership candidates, Derek Sloan and Leslyn Lewis. In the end, this was more than enough to secure the leadership, leaving McKay in the dust.

But there were some telling subtexts to his victory. While he did well in the west, O’Toole – an Ontario MP since 2012 – finished third in his home province on the first ballot, behind McKay and even Lewis, who finished a strong second there. Since Ontario is a province where the party must improve its showing if it is to succeed, this should be more than a little concerning to party strategists. Moreover, while O’Toole dominated in Quebec, he did so because of those new members in skeleton ridings.  Conservative support in the province currently stands at roughly 15%, while the Liberals are in the lead at 34% and the Bloc are close behind at 31%. Since O’Toole’s spoken French is far worse than Scheer’s, it is difficult if not impossible to see how his leadership success in the province will translate into seats for the party in the next election.

Of course the party encouraged this linguistic failing when many of its well-known activists seemingly returned to the 1950’s and declared that a “reasonable” knowledge of French (undefined) was sufficient for any leadership candidate, who could always appoint a Quebec lieutenant. The result was a leadership race in which NONE of the four candidates was fluent in French. Whatever else one might think of Stephen Harper, it must be said that he did not buy into that nonsense. Having decided to run for public office, and then the leadership, he worked hard to achieve a level of fluency never before seen in a Conservative leader, and it served him well. O’Toole will have much less time to attempt to improve before leader’s debates in the next election, where two of the other party leaders are francophone Quebecers and the NDP’s Jagmeet Singh has already demonstrated an impressive level of fluency in French.

This leads one to wonder what the many positive reviews of the Conservatives’ prospects under O’Toole have been based on. A few sobering facts should give those optimists pause. For example, instead of the usual ‘bump’ in the polls — which almost always accompanies the selection of a new party leader — the Conservatives, according to CBC pollster Eric Grenier, have actually LOST a per cent in public support, falling to 27% while the Liberals sit at 38%.[i] Similar bad news came from a Leger poll taken after O’Toole’s selection, that found the party’s support nationally fell to 26%, or 3 points lower than it stood in the polls with NO leader.[ii]

Another reason for concern is undoubtedly the relative anonymity of the new leader. Erin Who? Unlike his closest rival, Peter McKay, O’Toole is far from being a household name.  Almost 70% of those polled said they did not know him well enough to form an opinion.[iii] No surprise, then, that he began his acceptance speech by telling everyone “My name is Erin O’Toole.” 

What has perhaps been more of a surprise, particularly to his social conservative support base, is his eagerness the day after his election to claim that he is actually not a socon himself, never has been, but intends to always “respect” the opinions of others. While some observers feel that he has successfully put that “albatross” behind him, doubts linger. The Liberals’ immediate ploy to call for the removal of Conservative MP Derek Sloan, one of the socon leadership candidates, from the Conservative caucus, will be only the first of many such political challenges for O’Toole to navigate. 

Simply put, by almost any objective measure the Conservatives have scored another own goal. The Liberals must be laughing, and the chances of a late fall or early spring election have just increased substantially.

[i] Eric Grenier. “Erin O’Toole Courted the Right of the Conservative Party and Won.” CBC News. August 24, 2020. See also Konrad Yakabuski. “Another Conservative leader wins by pandering to special interests.” Globe and Mail. August 26, 2020.

[ii] Leger. Poll for Association of Canadian Studies. August 25, 2020.

[iii] Ispos. Poll for Global News. August 23, 2020.