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Conservative leader Erin O'Toole holds a press conference in Ottawa on Oct. 22, 2020.

Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

What the hell is Erin O’Toole up to?

The question is not entirely rhetorical. Barely two months ago, the former glad-handing pragmatist won the leadership of the Conservative Party as a “True Blue Conservative.” Under his direction, he pledged, the party would take a “principled conservative stand” rather than try to be “more like the Liberals.”

Beyond the rhetoric about “cancel culture and the radical left,” he offered a detailed platform promising to “end corporate welfare,” “reduce, flatten and considerably simplify” taxes, “aggressively pursue” free trade deals, “bring the budget to balance on a prudent timeline,” and otherwise “work towards making Canada the world’s freest economy.”

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And since then? Since then the Conservative Leader has been pedalling as fast as he can in the other direction. There was the interview with The Globe in which he revealed that the “prudent timeline” he had in mind for balancing the budget was “a decade or so.”

There were the Labour Day attacks on “bad trade deals” and the “corporate and financial power brokers” who support them, in preference to which he offered a “Canada First” approach to the economy, which he explained to an interviewer meant “self-sufficiency.”

And now there is last week’s (virtual) speech to the Canadian Club of Toronto, in which the Leader of the Conservative Party of Canada affirmed his belief that “middle-class Canada has been betrayed by the elites,” whose values, notably “unchecked globalization,” he decried as alien to theirs.

He bemoaned the decline of private-sector union membership, which provided an “essential balance” against the all-powerful “corporate and financial elites, who are happy to outsource jobs abroad,” by which he meant China.

Result: We have been “allowing ourselves to de-industrialize totally,” leaving Canadians without steady jobs (“do we really want a nation of Uber drivers”) or even "the possibility” of home ownership. He envisaged a shareholder demanding to know of a CEO “why are we paying a worker in Oshawa $30 an hour when we could be paying one in China 50 cents an hour.” But “while that shareholder gets richer, Canada gets poorer.”

In fairness, he has lived up to his pledge not to be more like the Liberals. He sounds a lot more like the NDP. Or possibly Donald Trump. At any rate, the message is inescapable: The Leader of the Conservative Party, the party whose proudest achievement was the Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement, is now squarely opposed to free trade.

Part of this is rank protectionism. His opposition to trade with China, it is clear, is only tangentially concerned with human rights or national security. What really seems to underpin it is opposition to comparative advantage, or as a generation of Conservatives will now be taught to say, “cheap labour.”

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But part of it is a woolly communitarianism, a “common good conservatism,” of a kind some centre-right thinkers, post-Trump, have been toying with. “We need policies to shore up the core units of society – family, neighbourhood, nation,” he said. “We need policies that build solidarity, not just wealth.”

It is a strange form of solidarity that starts by encouraging one part of the population to hate and resent another, the “elites” who have supposedly “betrayed” them. It sounds particularly contrived issued from the mouth of the former in-house counsel for Procter & Gamble. Yet plainly this populist-nationalist shtick is intended to signal an important shift, the latest makeover for the former principled conservative.

Possibly his new pose is just that, empty rhetoric, with no more real policy significance than his earlier free-market commitments. Possibly some of the voters Mr. O’Toole is twisting himself in knots to attract will be satisfied with this performance.

But possibly it will occur to some to ask, if the Conservative Leader is so opposed to allowing Canadians to buy things from countries where wages are lower than Canada’s, what does he propose to do about it? And if the answer is tariffs – Canada First! – perhaps it will occur to others to ask how a policy of making everyday purchases more expensive helps build either wealth or solidarity.

It’s a good thing for the Conservative Party to attempt to appeal to working-class Canadians, as it should with the many other demographic groups – women, young people, minorities, urbanites – it has alienated over the years. But workers will not be made richer by making things pricier. Neither will their jobs be made any safer, overall: Some will, but at the expense of others' – the ones those suddenly poorer consumers might have once supported with their purchases, but can no longer.

Protectionism, Ronald Reagan once declared, doesn’t save jobs: It just trades one job for another. But then, what did Reagan know about conservatism, or working-class voters, or winning elections?

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