On Wednesday, 73 members of the Conservative caucus voted to remove Erin O’Toole as their leader, signalling the end for the man who led the party into the election in September. Only 45 MPs voted against the resolution to turf O’Toole, showing serious upheaval among Conservatives on Parliament Hill.
What does this mean for the future of the party tasked with holding Justin Trudeau’s minority Liberal government to account? We asked our contributors at The Hub to weigh in.
After O’Toole’s ouster, Conservatives need to get serious about party renewal
By Sean Speer
I heard someone say yesterday that Erin O’Toole’s sacking as Conservative Party leader represents a “low point” for Conservative politics. That’s probably right. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
A Canadian political scientist recently told me that the Conservative Party’s biggest problem since losing the 2015 federal election is that it’s been popular enough not to prompt serious introspection and reform but not popular enough to win elections.
There was a logic in the 2019 election to follow the party’s same basic formula given that the 2015 defeat was mostly a reflection of the typical exhaustion that political parties face after nearly a decade in office. That the Conservatives then won the popular vote and picked up seats seemed to signal that this instinct was essentially correct.
There was of course still a change in leadership due to the perception that the key lesson from 2019 was that the party needed someone slightly different on top. But it would be wrong to overstate how much of a difference that Erin O’Toole was supposed to represent. His “true blue” persona in the 2020 leadership race basically amounted to an affirmation of Andrew Scheer’s politics but with better communication skills. His overriding message to party voters was one of continuity.
O’Toole’s subsequent reimagination still left most of the old formula intact but with a new, complicated carbon tax scheme and stronger nods to centrist positions on hot-button issues such as abortion. The bet was this combination of standard-fare conservatism, “green bucks”, and an explicitly pro-choice leader was the secret sauce for Conservative electoral success.
That bet was wrong. Instead, the net effect was stasis. The party’s standing in parliament was essentially unchanged.
In the aftermath of the election, O’Toole has since become more outspoken about the need for change in the form of greater party moderation. His tweets earlier this week about a perceived choice between “anger vs. optimism” amounted to a call for an intra-party debate about its ideas, priorities, and values.
It’s somewhat ironic that this is precisely the message that Peter MacKay sought to convey in the last leadership but was upended by O’Toole’s broad-side (and arguably disingenuous) attacks from the Right. But I digress.
The point is that the dismissal of the party leader and the prospect of its third leadership race since 2016 is indeed a low point since the Conservative Party was established earlier this century. The good news is that a low point is a prime opportunity for much-needed debate about ideas, policy, and party renewal.
It’s notable that the Liberal Party followed a similar trajectory after its loss in the 2006 election. It essentially dusted itself off in defeat and cycled through a series of leaders on the false assumption that the basic formula was still right. The ideas was that the party just needed to find the right person and it could be restored to its rightful place as the natural governing party of Canada.
The 2011 election in which the Liberals fell to third-party status represented its nadir. There were some voices who even wondered if the party faced an existential crisis.
Yet, in its aftermath, new party leader, Justin Trudeau, and his team pursued a serious agenda of renewal. They asked basic questions: Who are we? What do we stand for? How do we modernize our party? How can we bring new ideas and voices into the party?
We know the result of course. The Liberal Party came out of this process with new progressive energy that helped to propel it from third place to first in a single election cycle. Its lowest point, in short, was a springboard to now six-years-and-counting in office.
If yesterday was the Conservative Party’s low point, the question for Conservatives is what are they going to do about it? If they use this moment as an opportunity for renewal, they may ultimately look back on these disappointing developments as their own springboard to a stronger and more competitive future.
O’Toole is out, but some of his ideas should stick around
By Howard Anglin
When Darcy McKeough introduced the 1975 Ontario budget to journalists in the lock-up, he acknowledged its opportunism with a quip: “You’ve all heard of the politician who wound up his speech saying ‘Ladies and Gentlemen, those are my principles, and if you don’t like them I have some others.’” His candour didn’t win him any points with the captive media. Writing in the Ottawa Citizen, Harold Greer was scathing of the budget’s pre-election cynicism: “What it pretends to be and what it is are two different, contradictory things.”
Fair or not, by the time Conservative MPs ousted Erin O’Toole, a lot of them and much of the party at large believed that O’Toole had turned that quip into a theory of leadership. It’s a pity, because the one time he was forced to put principles down on paper they weren’t bad. His carbon pricing policy may have been a garbled mess, but the 2021 election platform included some smart new ideas to support families, increase housing supply, empower workers, and stand up to foreign threats, especially from the Chinese Communist Party.
I don’t know which of those policies O’Toole was really committed to and which, like his gun policy, he was prepared to swap out for others, McKeough-like, if they had been criticized. But the party didn’t lose the election because of these populist policies, and I hope that whoever takes over doesn’t throw them out holus bolus as tainted by association. A lot of those ideas deserve careful reconsideration. With a little polishing and some more fresh additions, they could be the foundation of a strong pro-family, pro-worker, pro-Canada agenda—principles another leader could stand by.
Time for the CPC to decide on its identity
By Shal Marriott
With Erin O’Toole losing the support of his caucus, there is a temptation to view this event as potentially redefining the future of Canada. What we need to recognize about this decision is that it does not represent Canadians but rather reflects a party trying to decide on its future.
This decision is not about the next election or what stance the Conservative Party should take on economic or social issues. It is the story of a caucus that felt disappointed in its leader and decided to go in a different direction to better represent its members.
What party do they want to be as they prepare to face off against the Liberal government? This is the question they now must answer and having a leadership race will give them the opportunity to do that.
Election losses are difficult. What matters now is that the Conservative Party finds a way to serve as an effective opposition in the House of Commons, and figures out what being the opposition means to them. This is about the party, and although one hears references to how dramatic this event has been, it signifies an important step forward.
In order to effectively oppose, a party must have a sense of its own definition. What O’Toole lacked as a leader was an ability to articulate a consistent definition of his own values and the values of his caucus and party membership. The removal of O’Toole from leadership represents a moment for the Conservative party to come to a greater sense of its own identity. The election will not be tomorrow. There is time to spend having serious conversations about what the Conservative Party is and ought to be. Let’s hope they do not waste it with petty squabbles and personal attacks.
Better to get the messy breakup over with now
By Ben Woodfinden
If you’ve ever been through a messy breakup you can sympathize with what the Conservative caucus is going through right now. Even before the vote, my sense was that the situation was untenable and needed to change.
Much of the criticism being directed at the plotters is that “this is not the right time” for this. But I think this is misguided. The tensions that burst into the public limelight this week did not emerge ex nihilo. These fights have been going on behind the scenes, in private, for a while now. It would be better if this remained private, but the one advantage of this happening now is it essentially rips the band-aid off and prevents us from having months on end of sniping behind anonymous sources and intra-party machinations.
It might not look good on the party right now, but it would look worse if it carried on for much longer, and by the time the next election rolls around no one will be talking about this.
In this case, ripping the band-aid off and forcing the party to solve these simmering issues is unpleasant but necessary medicine. And as an aside, the Reform Act provides an actual mechanism to do this, rather than a slow-burning civil war. I think that’s probably a good thing, but one thing I think the party seriously needs to do is amend its own constitution to require leadership reviews following every election and not just on a regular schedule.
If minority parliaments are the norm now this move would enable the party to sort questions of leadership out quickly and not create these purgatorial periods that followed both the 2019 and 2021 elections.
Why didn’t O’Toole sense the mood in his caucus?
By Rob Leone
It is both remarkable and breathtaking to see raw democracy in action. But, after the awe of the events that led to the ousting of Erin O’Toole as Conservative party leader, many questions remain. How could he lose so badly? Why did he not sense the mood in advance? Why would his team put him through such an embarrassment? These are questions that don’t yet have answers. O’Toole’s team let him down.
The results weren’t close. Caucus has clearly moved on, but the problems in the party persist. As I have stated before, the Conservative party is ungovernable. It is ungovernable because we expect the leader to follow the followers.
As I wrote in a previous column at The Hub, “the Conservative Party elects a leader, and the very next minute, that leader is expected to follow the followers — followers who will ruthlessly guillotine the leader for non-victory while themselves escaping any blame for the cataclysmic failure.”
And, here we are. Exactly as predicted.
O’Toole simply couldn’t ride the CPC beast
By Royce Koop
Erin O’Toole is out as Conservative Party leader. The reasons for this are complex and it would be a disservice to pretend otherwise. He finished the last election with a respectable result and, in fact, more votes than the Liberals. O’Toole was strikingly disciplined. He was eminently electable and, if he had been able to hang on to the leadership, almost certainly would have become prime minister.
But O’Toole failed to effectively manage his party. He simply couldn’t ride the beast. And it appears that he stumbled in particular at the task of caucus management, using strong-arm tactics when he should have been smoothing ruffled feathers. Ultimately, it was caucus—empowered by the Reform Act—that struck the final blow to his leadership. And that’s a good thing. It’s far better to have democratically elected MPs making this decision rather than shadowy party consultants with their whisper campaigns and manilla envelopes, as was the case with former leader Andrew Scheer.
One cannot win elections as Conservative leader without first mastering the party. It’s absolutely a prerequisite. This was Stephen Harper’s achievement. Harper, you might recall, never managed to become particularly popular with the Canadian electorate. But what he did do is master the CPC, somehow bridging all the divides within the party using a variety of tools and keeping an effective grip on the party. And because he was able to hang on as leader, he became prime minister when the Liberals, as they always eventually do, crashed and burned. The strategy is very simple in theory; enormously, maddeningly difficult in practice.
We are hearing a few names bandied about as potential successors. CPC members should ask themselves who among those names can master the party as Harper did? Who can ride the beast? Because, as the Liberals start to show their age, it may be the case that the next leader will ride right into the PMO.
The Conservative caucus loaded Chekhov’s Gun with the Reform Act
By Joanna Baron
Proponents of MP Michael Chong’s 2014 Reform Act have touted the bill as entrenching norms of transparency, independence, and accountability into Parliamentary politics: inserting some breathing space into the over-concentration of power endemic to Canadian politics.
So far, the Conservatives have been the only party to voluntarily adopt its processes, and after today they’ll probably be the last. The law of Chekhov’s Gun tells us that the Tories’ decision in their first post-election caucus meeting to adopt the Reform Act procedures effectively introduced a rifle into the caucus room destined to eventually fire. The Tories have been badly split on grievances that have only been increasing since then, grievances such as O’Toole’s milquetoast stances on lockdowns and vaccine mandates, which became quite literally impossible to drown out in the presence of the trucker convoy’s blaring horns on Parliament Hill.
So, does O’Toole’s historic ouster by 73 to 45 members of caucus vindicate Chong’s vision of a party of MPs with a layer of independence from their leader? At best, we can say that the procedure brought the Conservatives’ miseries to a head quickly and saved the party from months of rumours and infighting.
After all, the Conservatives’ vote to adopt the Reform Act’s procedure was widely seen as a warning to O’Toole of the party’s tepid support of him and resentment over another lost election, this one seen as winnable. So far, the only party willing to dance with the Reform Act is as opportunistic as Justin Trudeau was with his short-lived enthusiasm for proportional representation reform.
The Conservatives need a new leader. Let’s be quick about it
By Ken Boessenkool
I can’t imagine a worse time, or worse circumstances, or a worse way, in which a caucus formally deposed a leader. Partly because it’s never been done, but mostly because it shouldn’t have been done. Caucus did so in a process not contemplated by the Conservative Party constitution. It confirms to me that the Reform Act is a bad piece of law that no future caucus should agree to.
But now we must move on (O’Toole was gracious enough to resign, which makes it constitutional). Let’s do so very quickly. A 90-day leadership with a membership cut-off after 30 days. Let’s reward long-time members instead of insta-members who don’t have our party’s best interest in mind. Long leaderships are destructive, costly, and distracting to what we need to do. Let’s get on with it.
What social conservatives want
By Kelden Formosa
Anytime that anything bad happens to the Conservative Party, you know who will be blamed: those dastardly social conservatives in the party base. But as Erin O’Toole’s ouster shows, there is simply no getting away from us and being successful. O’Toole ran as our friend in the leadership race but then treated us like opponents once he won. He then lost the election, confirming the rule that Conservatives can’t win without us.
If the CPC is stuck with So-Cons, then its leaders should get to know us and what we want. Luckily, today’s social conservative wishlist is actually pretty short and pretty popular. Social conservatives know we are a minority, so we don’t push for massive policy changes. We just want to keep our freedom to exist as a community within a diverse society, and occasionally make small changes that the majority of Canadians support.
For example, these days, So-Cons are worried about the Liberal threat to strip charitable status from crisis pregnancy centres that simply provide women with alternatives to abortion. Tory MPs (even the social liberal ones) could earn a lot of credibility with us by attacking the prime minister as not really pro-choice. After all, nothing could be more pro-choice than providing more choices to women in need, and nothing is more anti-choice than Liberal efforts to reduce the availability of abortion alternatives.
The problem is that this issue and others like it is perceived as a hush-hush matter for backbenchers. It could well be a political winner, and it’s plainly right from a conservative perspective, but Erin O’Toole wouldn’t talk about it. That dynamic, repeated on issue after issue, is what did him in. A leader who won’t deliver everything So-Cons want is fine with us. But we want a leader who is willing to fight rather than flee when it’s possible for us to win.
O’Toole left his successor a lot to work with
By Karamveer Lalh
The decline of Erin O’Toole began the day he started his 2020 leadership bid.
O’Toole’s gambit was that the only way he could beat Peter MacKay was to feed the base a healthy dose of red meat, that he was the only ‘true blue’ Conservative ready and able to beat Justin Trudeau. This was a marked departure from the thoughtful moderate many of us were first introduced to during the 2017 leadership race.
When O’Toole secured the leadership, the true blue façade melted away, and the populist right that was instrumental in handing him the keys to Stornoway returned to pariah status. The refrain was that O’Toole needed to sell out one half of the party for the other to secure the leadership and then pivot the other way to become prime minister.
In the first two weeks of the federal election this fall, it seemed as if the gamble was working. The populist wing shelved their grievances and fell into line. But then it stopped working, and O’Toole was left with a result no better than in 2019. Although the discontent has slowly mounted in the months since the election, the flip-flop on the issue of meeting with the trucker’s protest was a bridge too far. The gamble on which he built his leadership fell apart.
While it is probably too early to speak of a legacy, O’Toole presented a defensible, positive vision of the country, performed his duty as leader of the opposition with grace and dignity, and bowed out with probably the best speech of his career. He pushed the Conservative Party in a direction that took climate change seriously, stood up for the average everyday worker, and blocked Trudeau from getting his coveted majority in the election Trudeau deemed the most important since the ‘Second World War.’
In politics, I would suppose that it may be difficult for a leader to leave a party in a better place than he or she found it — however, the leader that will eventually replace O’Toole will receive a lot to work with.
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