Opinion: Erin O’Toole and the Conservative Party brace for an ugly war over his shift to the left

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There will be war.

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Elections that create minority governments in Canada always lead to deadlocks between the country’s two main political parties. It will be no different.

Justin Trudeau will certainly hear the rumblings inside the Liberal Party, which, after failing to deliver a majority government, at what he called an election in August, was a clear possibility. His personal unpopularity was undoubtedly a factor in the outcome.


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Still, he won another victory as leader – his third – and one that is impossible to ignore.

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It is an entirely different matter with Erin O’Toole and the Conservative Party. There is no doubt that Mr O’Toole is gearing up for an internal battle that can get too loud and too messy and which has the potential to lead to a complete fracture of the conservative movement.

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It was never a secret that there were many conservatives who saw Mr. O’Toole’s shift to the left as a rebuke of Stephen Harper. The former prime minister’s chief of staff, Jenny Byrne, was quite public in her disdain for some of Mr O’Toole’s policy changes, particularly around climate change.

To the surprise and dismay of many within the party, including many of his own MPs, Mr O’Toole did a total of 180 on the carbon tax, saying he would bring in one as prime minister. This would be the same carbon tax that the Conservatives fought vigorously against over the years. The same carbon tax that Conservative lawmakers like Michelle Rampel Garner called a job killer and bourgeois public policy.

But Mr O’Toole felt that if Conservatives are ever to be taken seriously on climate change they would have to support a public policy measure that is almost universally recognized as the best way to change public behaviour.

That decision was one of his many moves to present a kinder, civilized, more modern-looking Conservative Party to the country. A version that many conservatives, especially in the West – the party’s stronghold – want no part of.

Mr O’Toole indicated in his concession speech that he has no intention of making any dramatic course corrections. In fact, if nothing else, he doubled down on it by saying that the party “has the courage to change, because Canada has changed.”

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It was taken almost literally from a speech by former British Tory leader David Cameron in 2005, in which he said that what the governing Labor Party feared most was a Conservative party that had “the courage to change”. Mr. O’Toole’s entire campaign platform was a manifestation of that belief.

This didn’t sit well with many in the base, particularly social conservatives who didn’t like Mr. O’Toole’s enthusiastic embrace of everything LGBTQ and his outspoken pro-choice take on abortion.

In fact, shortly after he left the platform after conceding defeat, the Campaign Life Coalition issued a news release saying it was disappointed but not surprised by the election result.

“If O’Toole hadn’t alienated the party’s socially conservative base with his brazen support for abortion, LGBT ideology, repressive lockdowns and a vaccine passport that erodes freedoms, conservative do much better.”

And this is largely the essence of the problems inside the party, which Mr. O’Toole has taken to the Conservatives.

The pandemic compromised Mr. O’Toole’s ability to convince the nation that conservatives were suddenly an enlightened, socially conscious political entity. For example, he would not say how many of his candidates were fully vaccinated – perhaps because many people were concerned that, if it turned out that they had been vaccinated, they would become the Anti-Vax People of Canada. Party support may be lost.

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In a tough race, a few hundred votes can mean the difference between victory and defeat. But this is the reality that conservatives faced.

Canada is not a predominantly conservative country, and Mr O’Toole knows this. He was trying to present an iteration of conservatism that was more palatable to the mainstream. Not everyone bought it.

The party’s popular vote fell by 14 percent in Alberta, where the Conservatives lost a handful of seats. For the Harperites in the party, this is unacceptable.

The internal war we are about to see will have its roots in that province, but will be waged across the country. Mr. O’Toole must be prepared for the impact.

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