Brian Mulroney destroyed the venerable Progressive Conservative Party and gave Canadians decades of political chaos with the Reform/Alliance Party and the Bloc Quebecois, regional fringe parties that rose from its remains.
Stephen Harper finally managed to cobble together a functioning ‘national’ party – the new Conservative Party — out of the western fragments and some old school blue Tories in Ontario and the Maritimes. He then held it together for a decade through sheer force of will and ruthless political manoeuvering, aided and abetted by a series of Liberal Party leaders not up to the task and a Liberal Party on life support.
With Harper’s departure from the helm of the party in 2015 after a Liberal resurgence, first Andrew Scheer and now Erin O’Toole have tried but failed to carry on. Scheer’s disastrous performance in the 2019 federal election led former Progressive Conservative leader (and erstwhile Harper cabinet minister) Peter Mackay to describe him as an “albatross” around the party’s neck. What must MacKay think now of Erin O’Toole, the man who defeated Mackay handily for the brass ring as Scheer’s successor in August 2020?
Immediately after O’Toole’s selection as leader public support for the party actually FELL. Lacking either name recognition or charisma, after six months O’Toole remained such a mystery to Canadians that his strategists felt it necessary to release an ad campaign in which he ‘introduced himself’ to voters by saying “Hello, I’m Erin O’Toole”. A month later, on the eve of the party’s biennial convention, the same strategists believed it was necessary to launch national television ads showing O’Toole in his old military uniform, and full page newspaper ads featuring a photo of O’Toole describing him as “a leader.”
The sheer desperation revealed by these moves is probably well founded. This is a party on the brink, morally rudderless and very clearly without a leader. Within the space of the past six months, on the policy front O’Toole has variously portrayed himself as a ‘true blue’ right winger supporting the social conservatives, a moderate man of the middle, and a left-wing quasi socialist who supports labour unions and opposes free trade. Equally difficult for hardline Conservatives to believe, he has mused about a carbon tax on large corporations after more than a decade of the Harper government’s outright hostility to that measure and all things environmental, repeatedly earning Canada the Colossal Fossil award.
In six months O’Toole has also caused havoc in internal party politics. He has jettisoned social conservative MP Derek Sloan from the caucus after having defended him during the leadership race. He has suddenly and without explanation removed the highly popular pit bull, Pierre Poilievre, from his Finance critic post. He has said he will allow a free vote on anti-conversion therapy legislation, leading key members of his caucus to organize their own resistance behind his back. Many of his MPs not only doubt they can win more votes in the next election, they believe their own seats are at risk. Meanwhile social conservative groups encouraged by Derek Sloan have taken over numerous high-profile riding associations in advance of the convention and are threatening to capture seats on the national executive.
In the end, it appears that these ‘new’ Conservatives may have at least one thing in common with the old Progressive Conservatives – a penchant for internal bickering over winning elections. Peter MacKay must be laughing. The Trudeau Liberals should be too.