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Tory admits faith-based schools funding mistake

An apologetic John Tory acknowledged yesterday that he ran a bad election campaign as leader of the Ontario Progressive Conservative Party by not responding effectively to the chorus of opposition to his proposal to fund faith-based schools.

Mr. Tory made the admission following a meeting with his caucus, where he won unanimous support to stay on as party leader in return for agreeing to abandon the contentious policy. It was his first meeting with his caucus since the party's defeat in the Oct. 10 election. He said he accepts full responsibility for the fact that his policy derailed his party's campaign, allowing the Liberals to win a second majority.

"Obviously, I'm not happy with how things went," Mr. Tory said. "We didn't do the job and we lost the election."

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During the five-hour, closed-door meeting at the University of Toronto's faculty club, he heard an earful from caucus members who told him they were not happy that he clung to the policy despite widespread evidence that voters overwhelmingly opposed it.

Mr. Tory told reporters he got valuable advice about how he could improve his management style. "You learn from mistakes you make," he said. "There are things I have to do to be better at this job, which I'll undertake to do."

The biggest mistake, he said, was not anticipating that the pledge to fund religious schools would become the dominant issue of the campaign and having an appropriate response ready. "That is ultimately my responsibility," he said.

Mr. Tory has come under criticism for not listening during the campaign to party officials and senior caucus members, including MPPs Bob Runciman and Elizabeth Witmer, who urged him to drop the policy.

Mr. Runciman told reporters yesterday that Mr. Tory has vowed to consult more with caucus members to ensure that they are more involved in the party's policy platform. But he said the fault rests more with the campaign team for not being more engaged with candidates and said Mr. Tory has "gone out of his way to bring caucus into the fold."

Mr. Runciman suggested Mr. Tory stuck with the policy because he was relying on internal polling numbers compiled by campaign manager John Laschinger's firm, Northstar Research Partners. The caucus was told yesterday that Northstar is no longer doing polling for the party.

The Conservatives emerged from the election with 26 seats, two more than in 2003. But their share of the popular vote slipped to 31.5 per cent from 34.6 per cent in 2003, when the party conceded defeat to the Liberals after eight years in power. Mr. Tory was also defeated in the Toronto riding of Don Valley West, where he ran against Liberal incumbent Kathleen Wynne. There was apparently no discussion about how Mr. Tory would obtain a seat in the legislature, which would presumably require a Conservative member to resign.

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Despite the disappointing results, caucus members emerged from yesterday's meeting expressing their loyalty to Mr. Tory. "We leave here united behind our leader, recognizing the public has spoken," Ms. Witmer said.

The caucus support was just the first hurdle Mr. Tory must pass to keep his job. He will meet on the weekend with Conservative candidates and party officials. But his future will not be determined until February, when the party holds a leadership review at its annual convention. In the meantime, the caucus has appointed Mr. Runciman as interim leader in the legislature.

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