Peter MacKay was once the overwhelming favourite to become the next leader of the Conservative Party of Canada.
He was the establishment choice, a fact that made it relatively easy for him to fundraise. The party’s co-founder and one of its brightest stars seemed destined for the lead role, despite reservations some had that he was more philosophically aligned with Liberal policies than those of his own party.
Then Alberta Premier Jason Kenney entered the fray.
In early March, Mr. Kenney sent out a letter to Conservative Party members articulating why he was supporting Erin O’Toole for leader. Mr. O’Toole, the missive said, was the candidate who could best be trusted to not abandon Conservative principles in the face of attacks from critics. It was a not-so-subtle shot at Mr. MacKay.
It was also a decisive moment in the campaign. Mr. Kenney is a powerful and influential voice in Conservative politics. His endorsement said that Mr. O’Toole was the best candidate for the party’s future. It was duly noted by the grassroots.
Mr. O’Toole rode the momentum Mr. Kenney’s pledge provided him all the way to his unlikely victory as the new Conservative leader, one made official in the early morning hours Monday (thanks to a major snafu with the ballot counting machines). And now, here we are today, with the new Conservative leader in a position to be a viable threat to Justin Trudeau and the Liberals’ hold on power.
The ride to victory, however, will not be an easy one.
Mr. O’Toole is hardly a household entity, even in the West, the region that forms the heart and soul of the party. He is better known in his home province of Ontario, but even there, his name isn’t any better recognized among the broader populace than it is from Manitoba to B.C. But this actually bodes well for the Conservatives.
Once Canadians get to know Mr. O’Toole and get a better sense of his personality, there will be far more people at least curious about what he’s selling. The MP from Ontario’s Durham region may never win a charisma contest with Mr. Trudeau, but he doesn’t have to. His appeal is a direct, pragmatic approach to tough issues, one rooted in substance over style.
Mr. O’Toole’s arrival comes as many Canadians are tiring of a federal government weighed down by scandal, and a Prime Minister whose incessant virtue-signalling and concern with image over all else has become a liability.
The paramount dilemma for Mr. O’Toole is one the party wrestles with incessantly: how to broaden its tent without alienating core supporters. How to appeal to the Red Tories of yesteryear with progressive policies around important issues like climate change without offending the likes of Mr. Kenney, who has undermined environmental protections in his province.
The Conservatives went into the last election without a serious climate plan and it backfired spectacularly. That should be enough to convince Mr. O’Toole and his advisors that to try that a second time would be folly.
There is unquestionably an anti-gay, anti-immigrant faction inside the Conservatives. They didn’t all leave to follow Maxime Bernier. But again, it would be sheer stupidity for Mr. O’Toole to do anything that resembles a nod in their direction, or propose anything that could be construed as throwing them a bone.
Because of the wee hour at which his triumph became official, very few got to see and hear Mr. O’Toole’s victory speech. That’s too bad. It was excellent. In it, he signalled that the party he plans to run is a party in which everyone is welcome.
“I believe that whether you are Black, white, brown or from any race or creed,” he began, “whether you are LGBT or straight, whether you are an Indigenous Canadian or have joined the Canadian family three weeks ago or three generations ago, whether you’re doing well or barely getting by, whether you worship on Friday, Saturday, Sunday or not at all … you are an important part of Canada and you have a home in the Conservative Party of Canada.”
That’s a pretty compelling message, one he felt strongly enough about that he repeated it at his first news conference as leader on Tuesday. It will resonate with many, if perhaps not with all inside the party he now leads. His challenge will be convincing those who don’t share his open-minded approach to leadership that to do otherwise would be denying the party its best and only hope of securing victory in the next federal election.
Erin O’Toole scored an upset victory in the Conservative Party leadership contest. He may not be finished there.
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