Erin O’Toole’s 2020 leadership strategy was brilliant. He was running against the politician associated with the Red Tories of the old Progressive Conservative Party, Peter MacKay, so he cast himself as the true-blue, rock-ribbed candidate of the right. Rank-and-file Conservatives, not too surprisingly, chose the supposedly more Conservative option.
His overall 2021 election strategy was pretty smart, too: Woo the large slice of middle-of-the-road Canadians who aren’t Conservatives but are disillusioned with Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government by positioning himself, and his party, as a moderate, modern alternative.
But the big problem was going from one to the other – quickly. And back again, from time to time.
Everything started to look like strategy. Nothing looked particularly like Erin O’Toole. Who knew what he was like, anyway?
There were certainly times when Mr. O’Toole ended up with a good position. The problem was that he had often had two or three positions along the way.
And that’s how in the end he got flattened by the truckers’ convoy that smashed into his leadership.
The actual position he took last week when the truckers’ convoy was rolling toward Ottawa should have been easy for a Conservative leader to defend. Mr. O’Toole said he was for vaccines but against mandates in which people would lose their jobs. He said he wasn’t going to endorse the protest or its organizers, but he would meet some of the truckers to hear their concerns.
But that was a lot of nuance when just a few days earlier he had spent an entire press conference dancing around the question of whether he would meet truckers. When Mr. O’Toole changed tack, the take-away that emerged for most people was that he had flip-flopped again – and would meet the truckers.
That was the last straw for some of his MPs. Wednesday’s vote to oust him, 73-45, was brutally clear.
His video message after defeat was magnanimous and perhaps reflected the leader Mr. O’Toole would have liked to have been, if he had his druthers. He warned that to be effective, parties have to win trust and get elected, and he appealed to politicians to bridge divides: “Hear the other side. Listen to all voices, not just the echoes from your own tribe.”
That was a good message. Mr. O’Toole had other good messages over his tenure, too. He also had a lot of less thoughtful memes and video messages that seemed to come from someone else. Sometimes, during his heavily scripted election campaign, one wondered what Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole would be like if he was actually Erin O’Toole.
Some Conservative MPs would say Mr. O’Toole did have listening instincts. He is thoughtful. He writes a lot of his own speeches. Some of his colleagues would also say that his instinct was to keep options open and ponder arguments on the one hand and the other – a modern William Lyon Mackenzie King in a television age that doesn’t allow for it.
There was another side, too, the former military man trained in tactics as a helicopter navigator – who ruthlessly chose the right tactics to meet the mission of the 2020 leadership race, and then did what a tactician does, adopting new tactics for the next mission, in the election. That always meant his party was unlikely to give him a second shot.
Mr. O’Toole’s sudden ouster was rough, but not unique. Ask Tom Mulcair, who was dumped hard by the NDP after he failed to win the 2015 election. Both leaders lacked a deep connection to the grassroots of their party that might have saved their leadership after a losing campaign.
Mr. O’Toole’s own party hardly knew him. He won the leadership on the third ballot as a lesser-known candidate in a pandemic campaign that was mostly virtual, and therefore lacked a lot of face time. Then he changed political persona. He didn’t have a big constituency of Conservatives who felt that they’d walked the long road with him.
He tried to hold on by touting the idea that he had the right strategy, the right direction for the Conservative Party. But what the party thirsted for was a leader to give them an identity. And that’s what the party, and the public, couldn’t see. Now, after 17 months, Canadians say farewell to Erin O’Toole as opposition leader. We hardly knew him.
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