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Conservative leader Erin O'Toole in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, March 24, 2021.Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

Last Friday, as Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole was preparing to deliver a make-or-break speech to his party’s policy convention, Peter MacKay was tweeting about how much he was “loving life on the East Coast,” where he was shovelling out after an end-of-winter snowstorm.

“There might be a big job in Ottawa coming open soon,” one of the former Tory leadership contender’s Twitter followers commented. “Stay by the phone.”

Judging by his active presence on social media, it would be hard to conclude that Mr. MacKay has definitively hung up his political skates. Rather, he looks to be biding his time as the man who defeated him for the Conservatives’ top job last year flails his way toward apparent disaster at the polls.

As he struggles to define both himself and the party he leads (for now), Mr. O’Toole is facing the very problems Mr. MacKay and his supporters warned about during the leadership campaign. Having famously blamed the party’s 2019 electoral defeat on the “stinking albatrosses” hanging around then-leader Andrew Scheer’s neck, Mr. MacKay put social conservatives on notice from the get-go that he would have no time for them or their agenda.

It may have cost him the leadership last August. But it spared him the charges of inauthenticity and crass opportunism that have dogged Mr. O’Toole ever since he won the leadership on the third ballot by courting supporters of anti-abortion candidates Derek Sloan and Leslyn Lewis. Whatever his tactical reasoning at the time, Mr. O’Toole’s strategy set him up for the fall he now seems destined to suffer.

Last year, Mr. O’Toole warned that Mr. MacKay would turn the Tories into a “Liberal Party lite,” held himself up as the “true blue” candidate in the race and vowed to “Take Back Canada” from the “radical left” that had apparently stolen it from ordinary Canadians.

“This is really a struggle for the identity of the Conservative Party in 2020,” Mr. O’Toole said when he launched his leadership bid. “Do we go back and be the mushy middle party? Or do we have conservative, principled ideas for all the issues of the day.”

That Erin O’Toole was nowhere in sight during his party’s weekend convention. Instead, someone with the same name said this: “We must present new ideas, not make the same arguments hoping that maybe this time more Canadians will come around to our position. … We need to be the party for all of Canada.”

So Mr. O’Toole now expects Canadians to forget almost everything he said during the party’s leadership race, and believe him when he says he wants to embrace “new ideas” to woo voters who typically lean Liberal or New Democratic?

Most politicians are shapeshifters to some extent. But Mr. O’Toole is neither a good enough actor nor a compelling enough personality to get away with it. To the average voter – to the extent she is watching at all – he seems to have either misrepresented himself during the leadership race or is faking it now. Either way, his flip-flopping on something as fundamental as his core vision just makes him look cynical.

Mr. MacKay would certainly have had his own challenges in uniting Conservatives had he won the leadership last year. Like Mr. O’Toole, he opposed the Trudeau government’s federal carbon tax and promised a replacement climate policy that would target industrial emitters rather than consumers. But without providing a comprehensive plan, he would have faced the same credibility gap as Mr. O’Toole on an issue that requires clarity and action.

Still, Mr. MacKay would not have had to spend the past seven months explaining why he had said one thing during the leadership campaign and its opposite ever since. Social conservatives would have expected no consideration from him. Mr. O’Toole, in contrast, must now fight off attempts by Mr. Sloan, who was ousted from caucus on the pretext that he had received a donation from a known white supremacist, to torpedo his leadership. And he must persuade moderate voters that he never meant what he said last year.

Perhaps the problem is not so much that the Conservative Party needs to change, but that it needs to change its leader. It may be too late for that to happen before the next election, which could come as soon as June. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is not invulnerable. An ethics commissioner’s report could refresh unpleasant memories of the WE Charity scandal, and COVID-19 vaccine deliveries could stall again.

But who, right now, can imagine Mr. O’Toole beating him?

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