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The narrative of a perpetual campaign is one Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole needs to establish if he is to avoid a leadership challenge after losing an election that, only two weeks ago, many believed was within his party’s grasp.Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole delivered one of the oddest concession speeches in the history of concession speeches after losing Monday’s federal election to Justin Trudeau’s Liberals.

First off, the Tory Leader conceded nothing. He was not very gracious in defeat. He was combative and defiant and sounded very unlike he had during the previous 36 days, when he repeated pre-packaged talking points in the same monotone voice at each stop along the campaign trail. In the wee hours of Tuesday morning, Mr. O’Toole was finally ready to rumble.

“Mr. Trudeau was hoping for a quick power grab,” he said derisively of his Liberal rival, who called a snap election hoping to recapture the majority government he lost in 2019. “Instead, he has thrust us into what he has promised will be 18 months of perpetual campaigning.”

The narrative of a perpetual campaign is one Mr. O’Toole needs to establish if he is to avoid a leadership challenge after losing an election that, only two weeks ago, many believed was within his party’s grasp. By insisting that the Tories must stand ready to fight another electoral battle within months, Mr. O’Toole is hoping he can hang on to his job by default.

It is too soon for Conservatives to decide whether Mr. O’Toole is the right person to lead their party into the next election. Unlike Andrew Scheer, Mr. O’Toole demonstrated an ability to grow in the job and an understanding that Conservatives must expand their tent to govern again.

The notion that the Tories can thrive as a national party by courting less than two-fifths of the electorate, as they did under Stephen Harper and Mr. Scheer, should be put to rest. The condition that allowed Mr. Harper to win three elections in a row – specifically, Liberal infighting and disarray – constituted a stroke of luck for the Tories that is not likely to be soon repeated.

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Mr. O’Toole gets this, of course. But he has been hamstrung by questions of authenticity, as he attempted to pivot from his 2020 leadership campaign to a general election by abandoning his “true blue” persona for that of a Reddish Tory. The real Erin O’Toole is undoubtedly a moderate, centre-right politician. But that he felt it necessary to pander so shamelessly to social conservatives and gun-rights activists to win the leadership makes him look both phony and unprincipled. That was bound to catch up with him on the campaign trail.

There are many Harperites who will take exactly the wrong lessons from their party’s most recent loss and call for a return to the old strategy under a new leader. They will point to the party’s plummeting support in Alberta – where the Tories saw their share of the popular vote drop by more than 15 percentage points on Monday compared to 2019 – to discredit Mr. O’Toole’s attempts to move the party toward the centre. They will underscore the dangers posed to the Tories by a reinvigorated People’s Party of Canada under Maxime Bernier.

As if. Defections to the PPC perhaps cost the Tories a handful of seats, but certainly not enough to have made a difference on Monday. Mr. Bernier relied mainly on a fringe of disaffected voters who seized on the issue of mandatory vaccinations and vaccine passports to vent their pent-up anger at the political establishment. His PPC emerged in this election as a single-issue party whose cause célèbre will not extend beyond the pandemic.

Some Tories will insist the party scored a moral victory by again winning the popular vote, as their party did in 2019 under Mr. Scheer. But the vote count was more a function of the Liberals’ failure to make a convincing case for a majority government. The Conservatives still came up short in urban and suburban Canada, and in Quebec, where the party desperately needs to shake the image that has dogged it since Mr. Harper ran the show.

Mr. O’Toole made a serious attempt to win over Quebeckers with a genuine promise of decentralization, which won him the tacit endorsement from Coalition Avenir Québec Premier François Legault. But his hopes for a breakthrough in the province were ultimately undone by his previous courting of gun-rights activists during his leadership bid.

It will be hard for the Tories to become a contender in Quebec without a fluently bilingual leader from that province. That consideration must be part of the discussion as the party weighs Mr. O’Toole’s future. While the Conservatives could conceivably win power again without more seats in Quebec – Mr. Harper won a majority in 2011 despite capturing only five Quebec ridings – the odds of that are slim.

Mr. O’Toole, like his party, must be honest about that.

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