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Conservatives openly criticize party’s election performance

Prime Minister Stephen Harper leaves the stage after giving his concession speech in Calgary on Monday.

MARK BLINCH/REUTERS

Members of the now-leaderless Conservative Party are speaking more publicly and frankly about what went wrong and how to dig themselves out of defeat, with some MPs decrying centrepiece legislation or criticizing the campaign's senior strategists.

The Conservatives are no longer in the thrall of Stephen Harper, the only leader the 12-year-old party has ever had. Mr. Harper resigned this week, and the Tories are casting about for an interim chief to guide them while they select a permanent replacement. Diane Finley, one of the few senior cabinet ministers returning in the next Parliament, put her name forward on Wednesday as a candidate for interim leader.

Mr. Harper enforced a strict message discipline, and now members find themselves able to talk more freely – at least for now.

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It began on election night, shortly after the Tories lost to Justin Trudeau's Liberals, when Harper lieutenant Jason Kenney served up a fundamental criticism of the campaign, telling the national press the Conservatives had been too negative. "I think our obvious weakness has been in tone, in the way we've often communicated our messages. I think we need a conservatism that is sunnier and more optimistic than we have sometimes conveyed."

As the week wore on, more Conservatives opened up, with those in Calgary – Mr. Harper's hometown – in a particularly candid mood.

Calgary Forest Lawn MP Deepak Obhrai, who most recently served as the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Foreign Affairs, talked to media of how he had never liked Bill C-24, a key part of the Harper Conservatives' legislative agenda that was controversial in the election campaign. Bill C-24, now law, allows Ottawa to revoke the Canadian citizenship of dual citizens convicted of serious crimes such as terrorism.

"I was not comfortable with the whole idea," Mr. Obhrai said in an interview. He said he does not think the government should have the power to take away citizenship, adding that, in his job, he had "travelled around the world and seen this abuse take place." He said he never hid his feelings on the bill. "The Prime Minister was aware of the fact I was not very happy about this."

The legislation unnerved members of the immigrant community, and the Tories encountered concern while door-knocking. Mr. Obhrai said he thinks it hurt his party.

He called Mr. Harper a "visionary leader," but added that, with a new chief, the Tories need to present "a different, softer image."

"Somewhere in the middle of the campaign, we became out of touch with Canadians."

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The knives are also out for Jenni Byrne, who managed Mr. Harper's campaign.

Newly elected Calgary Signal Hill MP Ron Liepert talked of how shocked he was at the consistent anti-Harper sentiment he met at the door while campaigning.

"That really surprised me, because I'd thought in Calgary he was almost godlike," Mr. Liepert said to The Calgary Herald this week.

He proceeded to air his displeasure with Ms. Byrne's management style, recounting a "15-minute shouting match" he had with her several months ago, when she visited Calgary to voice her unhappiness at how things were going for the Tories there.

"It was the most classless conversation I've ever had in my life."

On CBC Radio's Ontario Today program on Tuesday, Toronto-area MP Lisa Raitt questioned whether the Conservatives were able to reach women aged 18 to 49.

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"I don't know whether or not our party and our government did a good job of communicating with women like me," Ms. Raitt said.

Some Conservative brass feel the public criticism of the campaign is not helping.

On Twitter on Wednesday, Guy Giorno, a former chief of staff to Mr. Harper, and 2015 national campaign chair, admonished those who would take their concerns to media.

"Any views on why we fell short, I owe it to my party to share with [the] party and national council instead of the media and public," Mr. Giorno wrote.

This new Conservative glasnost extends to MPs contemplating running for the leadership.

Calgary Nose Hill MP Michelle Rempel posted some arresting comments on Twitter late this week about how much resistance a young female Conservative MP would face in a run for the leadership.

"But, but, but, but she's so YOUNG and ONLY FOUR YEARS and SO BOSSY," Ms. Rempel tweeted. "These are the things we face. I am competent, proven, and ready. Here's the question – are you ready for someone like me?"

Turning around her party's own criticism of Justin Trudeau – that he was too young and "just not ready" – the MP wrote, "Just not ready is no longer an argument. Times have changed."

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