After disappointing election results and weeks of internal turmoil, Conservative caucus members have officially shown the door to their leader Erin O’Toole, automatically triggering a leadership contest that may further disunify an already divided party.
Following the 2019 federal election, leader Andrew Scheer stepped down as leader of the Conservative Party of Canada. In August 2020, Durham MP Erin O’Toole was elected as his successor, beating out the initial frontrunner, former deputy leader Peter MacKay. During the leadership contest, O’Toole, a moderate Tory, ran on a “true blue” platform to win over his party’s socially conservative and religious wing.
During the 18 months the suburban Toronto-based MP served as a leader, O’Toole adopted a more centrist approach of rallying moderate voters in Ontario, Quebec, and Atlantic Canada. Some of the policies included supporting a carbon tax and an assault-style weapon ban – two policies the Tories were known for opposing in the past. This reversal of positions leads many political commentators to characterize O’Toole as a weathervane.
Ultimately, O’Toole’s plan did not work in dislodging Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government. The Conservative Party won 119 seats in the last federal election, losing two from 2019. Following the disappointing election results, many right-wing Tory MPs and Senators who supported O’Toole since the leadership contest have started to blame his leadership as the reason behind their defeat.
The removal process
Calls for O’Toole’s resignation have grown since the last election. Senator Denise Batters from Saskatchewan launched a petition to remove him from his position. She was later expelled from the party. Several Conservative riding associations have also called for the party to hold an early leadership review.
Ultimately, on January 31, thirty-five Conservative MPs signed a letter wishing for the caucus to vote on their leader’s leadership immediately. Under a 2014 law, a parliamentary caucus can fire its leader if more than 20% of its MPs demand it. It is the first time this law has been enacted in Canadian history.
On February 2, during their caucus meeting, Erin O’Toole’s leadership was defeated by a vote of 73-45, effectively terminating his job. Ontario MP Scott Reid abstained due to his position as caucus chair.
Motives for removing O’Toole mainly revolved around his transformation from a hard-right to a centrist leader. Alberta MP Garnett Genius, one of the thirty-five who co-signed the letter, voted for O’Toole’s removal partially due to his decision of voting in favour of outlawing conversion therapy without consulting caucus first. Genius, who previously voted against the ban in a similar bill, was overseas when the Canadian Parliament unanimously voted to ban conversion therapy.
Rift between the centre and the right
O’Toole’s leadership and removal expose the already deep divides within the Conservative Party that many political analysts believe caused the party’s demise at the hands of the Liberals in previous elections.
When the modern Conservative Party was formed in 2003, it acted as the merger of the more moderate Progressive Conservatives, more prominent in Eastern Canada, and the more right-wing Canadian Alliance, more prominent in Western Canada. The Tories hoped the merger would defeat the Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin Liberal government. Under the leadership of Stephen Harper, both sides of the party stayed unified as the Tories held power from 2006 to 2015. Since Harper’s departure from politics, the debate still rages on whether the Tories should adopt a more centrist approach to win over voters or stay further to the right and stay as a voice for right-wing voters in the country.
Following the election loss of 2019, moderate Conservatives blamed Andrew Scheer’s socially conservative positions on why they lost the election. Two years later, Erin O’Toole was sacked by more than 60% of his caucus for being too centrist.
Dimitri Soudas, the former director of communications under Stephen Harper, believes this internal rift between the two wings will cause the Tories to lose more elections unless a leader can unify both camps. “If the next Conservative leader can stay at the centre of the party, and then stay in the centre of the country, he or she can govern the country like [former Prime ministers] Brian Mulroney and Stephen Harper did […] if not, they will never govern at all,” said Soudas on the Radio-Canada show Mordus de Politique.
A few hours after O’Toole’s leadership vote, caucus selected deputy leader Candice Bergen as its interim leader until a permanent successor is chosen. As interim leader, the Manitoba MP cannot run for the next upcoming leadership election, which will be held for the fourth time in the party’s history and the third time in the last five years.
On February 5, Pierre Poilievre became the first candidate to have thrown his hat in the ring. Known for his sharp attacks on the Trudeau government, the 42-year-old Ottawa-based MP is seen as the crowd favourite to become leader thanks to his popularity amongst caucus and party members. Poilievre, who also serves as the party’s Shadow Finance Minister, is widely seen as a right-wing voice for his support of the controversial “Freedom Convoy” in Ottawa and opposition to public health measures. However, on social issues, Poilievre is pro-choice and supports the ban on conversion therapy. As of writing this article, Poilievre is the sole candidate for leadership.
Ontario MP Leslyn Lewis may be tempted to run for a second time. The then-Toronto lawyer gained national media coverage as the first Black woman to run for the Tories’ leadership contest. Lewis, a pro-life social conservative, finished third with more than 20% of the votes.
Peter MacKay has also been speculated to run once again. The 56-year-old former deputy leader from Nova Scotia has been associated as the face of the party’s moderate wing.
Jean Charest’s name has been thrown as a leadership candidate for O’Toole. The former Premier of Quebec has been described by MPs as an interesting and powerful choice for progressives and moderates.
Other prominent names who might run include Brampton mayor Patrick Brown, former Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Michael Chong, Cinémas Guzzo CEO Vincenzo Guzzo, political commentator Tasha Kheiriddin, Ontario Transport Minister Caroline Mulroney, and Calgary MP Michelle Rempel Garner.
As for Erin O’Toole, he will continue as the MP for Durham and vows to support the next leader of the Conservative Party. However, in his final speech, O’Toole expressed concerns that a more right-wing Conservative Party may not win the next election. “Ideology without power is vanity. Seeking power without ideology is hubris,” warned O’Toole.
As Dimitri Soudas explained, the next leader of the Conservative Party of Canada will bear the immense responsibilities of unifying a party in shambles and leading the party to victory, should he or she wish to avoid the same fate of their predecessors.
By Jacques Wang