Going by the Conservative Party’s current criteria for turfing its leaders, Stephen Harper would never have become prime minister. He would have been ditched after only holding the Liberals to a minority in 2004.
The same thing would have happened to Liberals Lester Pearson and Wilfrid Laurier, who lost their first campaigns. They would never have become prime ministers. Tory Robert Stanfield was allowed three election defeats before having to step aside.
Erin O’Toole has received no such tolerance for his one defeat. He is out, guillotined by his party, brutally repudiated by a caucus vote of 75-43 after only 17 months on the job and one lost election, in which he won the popular vote. He’s gone now, reduced to rubble because he did what no Conservative leader can do. He ran afoul of the party’s hard-right base.
The Conservatives will now hold a leadership convention to crown their sixth leader – yep, sixth, including interims – since Justin Trudeau took over the Liberals in 2013.
If it sounds mad, it’s not. For this, the powder-keg party, it is normalcy. The party will survive this latest upheaval as it has survived the many other occasions when it set itself on fire.
It dispatched Andrew Scheer in a flash, Stockwell Day in a New York minute and Joe Clark in a leadership review. When the Mulroney Conservatives won a second straight majority in 1988, it wasn’t enough. The party proceeded to detonate into three factions – Tories, the Reform Party and the Bloc Québécois.
What will help now is the decisiveness of the O’Toole verdict. If it was a close call, corrosive bitterness would have resulted. It wasn’t.
Mr. O’Toole had the daunting task of trying to appeal to both the party’s Western populists and Eastern pragmatists. In doing so, he bounced around like a fish on a dock. The chameleon approach worked for him in winning the leadership when he transformed himself into a true-blue type. But at the helm, he tried to tack moderate and it backfired.
He was all over the map on the trucker convoy. He alienated the base of the party on guns, on climate change and on other issues. He treated dissidents with disdain and his popularity with the public plunged well below that of the party itself. Hence the gang-up.
But his desire to make the Conservatives more moderate and inclusive was the correct course for the country and likely for the party. Those taking control now include a large number of strong Conservatives – mainly Westerners with legitimate grievances – but they also include anti-vaxxers, social conservatives, climate-change skeptics and Donald Trump-styled hotheads.
The upshot will likely see the party move further adrift of moderate mainstream Canadian values, values that have seen Liberal governments elected two-thirds of the time.
The hard right’s stock and trade is visceral anger. If the O’Toole ouster cements its control, as opposed to the centre right, it will have the effect of further polarizing the country, debasing the dialogue, pitting region against region.
On the leadership question, Pierre Poilievre is one to watch. He is a gifted politician, exceedingly articulate, more capable than anyone in Ottawa of marshalling arguments with precision and power. He is also underhanded and unscrupulous, a polarizer who will go as low as a crocodile if it suits his needs.
What need be remembered is his work on electoral reform – his ludicrously named Fair Elections Act – while serving in the Harper government. It was replete with measures muzzling the chief electoral officer as well as voter-suppression initiatives, including tightening voter-identification rules. There was such an outcry that Mr. Poilievre was forced, in humiliating fashion, to withdraw them.
As for any moderate seeking the leadership, they might only wish to recall what happened to Jean Charest when he contemplated a bid in the last leadership campaign. Mr. Harper put up roadblocks.
Don’t rule out a Peter MacKay bid, a close colleague of his tells me. The former leader feels he has considerable support in caucus and that he is a candidate who can bridge the party divide.
Before he was sacked, Mr. O’Toole issued a final appeal on said divide, saying there were two possible roads forward. One is “angry, negative, and extreme. It is a dead end.”
“The other road is to better reflect the Canada of 2022. To recognize that conservatism is organic, not static, and that a winning message is one of inclusion, optimism, ideas and hope.”
Sounds right. But the powder-keg party probably has other ideas.
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