Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole, fighting for his political survival, sought pledges of support as he faces a decisive caucus vote that could oust him from the party’s top job.
Mr. O’Toole, his advisers and caucus loyalists spent Tuesday calling MPs to back his leadership ahead of a vote in a secret ballot Wednesday on whether to remove him as leader and set the stage for a third Conservative Party leadership convention since 2015.
A letter signed by 35 dissident MPs, representing 30 per cent of the caucus, was sent to caucus chair Scott Reid on Monday triggering the leadership vote. Mr. O’Toole, who pledged to fight the open leadership revolt, was not in the House of Commons on Tuesday. Sources said it is unclear whether he will be able to rally enough support.
The Globe and Mail is not identifying four sources from each camp because they were not permitted to disclose the internal deliberations.
The letter, obtained by The Globe, said the dissidents had garnered signatures from more than 20 per cent of the caucus, as required by the 2013 Reform Act to trigger a leadership vote. The letter instructed Mr. Reid to order a “secret-ballot vote be taken among the members of the caucus to conduct a leadership review.”
Mr. O’Toole, deputy whip James Bezan, MP Michael Chong and other supporters were making phones calls Wednesday in an effort to line up enough MPs to defeat the dissidents. The Reform Act only calls for a simple majority for Mr. O’Toole to stay on.
But to secure his position, one source close to Mr. O’Toole said the marker of success is the 66.9-per-cent bar set by former Progressive Conservative leader Joe Clark when he faced a party review vote and then called a leadership convention, which he lost to Brian Mulroney. The source said Mr. O’Toole’s team is not certain it can hit that level of support.
The anti-O’Toole faction says it has 63 of the 119 MPs on its side. Mr. O’Toole’s camp, though, believes it can win a simple majority vote. But some Conservative sources acknowledged that it’s possible MPs are pledging support to both the Leader’s office and the dissidents. Another source said MPs who are sitting on the fence are concerned about who will actually run in a prospective leadership race.
Most Conservative MPs declined to speak either with reporters on Parliament Hill on Tuesday or when contacted by The Globe. But deputy leader Candice Bergen endorsed Mr. O’Toole in a brief comment to reporters. “I’m supporting Erin O’Toole,” she said before walking away.
MPs Chris d’Entremont and Ron Liepert also said he should stay on, with Mr. Liepert blaming the infighting on former leader Andrew Scheer.
“You’ve got a bunch of angry Scheerites out there, that’s the problem,” Mr. Liepert said.
Nova Scotia MP Stephen Ellis, tapped by Mr. O’Toole to help develop his COVID-19 policies, said he not only supports the Leader, but believes he has the votes necessary to survive.
Mr. Ellis added that he believes Mr. O’Toole would have called the leadership review himself had it not been thrust upon him by his MPs.
Two Alberta MPs, Garnett Genuis and Bob Benzen, who both endorsed Mr. O’Toole in the past leadership race, said they were among the 35 Conservatives who signed the letter to force a vote.
“The Leader’s position is untenable,” Mr. Genuis said Tuesday as he predicted the party will soon have a new leader.
Late Tuesday, 21 former MPs sent a letter to the caucus to oust Mr. O’Toole. One of those MPs was former agriculture minister Gerry Ritz, who was an organizer for Mr. O’Toole in the 2020 leadership race.
“Erin O’Toole has not only failed to unite the party, his words and actions in recent days have created greater disunity. It is time for him to step aside for the good of the Conservative Party and the nation,” the MPs wrote.
Alberta Premier Jason Kenney threw his support behind Mr. O’Toole, saying he still supports his leadership.
“I think it’s not in the interest of any party to constantly change leaders every election cycle,” he told reporters.
In a Monday statement pledging to fight the revolt, Mr. O’Toole said Conservatives need to choose whether they want the party to be “angry, negative and extreme” or “one of inclusion, optimism, ideas and hope.”
Those comments riled his detractors even further because they said it showed the Leader taking a scorched-earth approach to try to save his own political skin.
In his own statement posted to Twitter, Mr. Benzen said he signed the letter because he was worried Mr. O’Toole’s leadership could result in an “unrepairable split in the party.” He said the statement from the Leader “confirmed my worst fears.”
“Mr. O’Toole wants to divide the caucus and this party, not unite it … Mr. O’Toole is doubling down – launching attacks and threatening ‘consequences’ against any MP who dares dissent.”
Mr. Benzen added: “Even if Mr. O’Toole wins the vote on Wednesday, the Conservative Party and its grassroots supporters across the country will lose. A house divided against itself cannot stand.”
Should he lose the leadership, the caucus will name an interim leader. The likely candidates are Ms. Bergen, veteran MP Ed Fast or House leader Gérard Deltell.
The Conservatives have been in a near-constant formal or informal leadership race since they lost power in 2015. After Mr. Scheer won the post in 2017, he dealt with a revolt from failed leadership candidate Maxime Bernier that ended with a split and the creation of the People’s Party of Canada.
After the 2019 election loss, Mr. Scheer faced swift pressure to resign, and he ultimately did, triggering the leadership race that saw Mr. O’Toole win.
However, within a year of his tenure, there were rumblings of dissent after Mr. O’Toole reversed his position against a carbon tax ahead of the 2021 election.
Conservative commentator Tim Powers said the Tories risk repeating mistakes of the past where internal divisions in the 1990s made it difficult for parties on the right to mount an effective opposition.
“If Conservatives are naive enough to think that simply changing the leader is going to improve their electoral fortunes, then they deserve what they get,“ said Mr. Powers, the chairman of Summa Strategies. “There’s a sense of forgetting the past here.”
“The only people who benefit when the Conservatives wage war on each other are their political opponents.”
He said the party needs to stake out clearly what it stands for, what its common values are and explain its position to voters.
”While Erin O’Toole may struggle and while Erin O’Toole may not be performing the way caucus likes, where is the magical unicorn out there that is going to do better? Leadership change is only really cosmetically addressing the bigger challenges the Conservative Party has around identity.”
With reports from James Keller in Calgary and The Canadian Press
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