The report of the Conservatives’ internal review on the party’s most recent electoral defeat, presented to caucus last week, blames a number of factors. The leader was too scripted. The party needs to do more to reach out to ethnic communities. The leader spent too much time in the TV studio, not enough on the road. The party needs to rebuild its voter database. Etc., etc.
There’s some truth in all of these, but that’s not why they lost the election. The party has much deeper problems than strategy and tactics – or its leader, for that matter. The problem, rather, is that it is divided: divided, not on the basis of ideology or region, but between, as one might say, the grownups and the adolescents: between those with some elementary moral and practical judgment, and those with none; between those who live in the realm of facts, and those who seem increasingly to inhabit a fantasy world. In a word, the party’s problem is extremism, which though it does not define the party as a whole is enough to taint the remainder.
These are not mere differences over policy. There is room for debate over how best to deal with climate change. There is no serious dispute that it is actually happening. Whether vaccine mandates are wise policy is likewise a matter on which reasonable people can differ; whether they are akin to Nazi experiments on Jewish prisoners is not. This is what makes the party’s extremists so toxic to the public: not so much the substance of this or that position, as the generally unhinged quality they exude.
It would be difficult for any leader to straddle that divide. Erin O’Toole has probably done a worse job of it than most, campaigning first as the “Take Back Canada” candidate in the leadership race, then as the leader of the Liberal Lites in the election. As the campaign wore on, it became increasingly difficult to reconcile these contradictions, at length leading Mr. O’Toole to repudiate large sections of the platform.
All of which was mere prelude to the mortifying scenes of the past week: prominent members of the Conservative caucus whooping it up with the anti-vaxxers, conspiracy theorists and other assorted yahoos on the streets of Ottawa; Mr. O’Toole twisting in agony in front of the media. And now a leadership review, at the request, reportedly, of 35 members of his caucus – as required by the Reform Act, or more particularly by the decision of caucus late last year to apply its provisions to itself. If a majority at Wednesday’s caucus meeting votes to remove Mr. O’Toole, out he goes.
Clearly the leadership issue had to be brought to a head. The Reform Act has already proved its worth, telescoping what might have been months of infighting into a decisive few days. But caucus should take care to use its new powers wisely. Ditching the leader will do nothing to resolve the split within the party.
Worse, it might saddle it with a leader who, while greatly exciting to its extremist wing, is repugnant to voters at large.
I can predict the first thing such a leader might do, flushed with victory and backed by his populist base: demand the caucus jettison the Reform Act, citing the very “instability” he had himself fomented and profited from.
Whatever Mr. O’Toole’s failings, nothing he has done or not done adds up to a firing offence. What Pierre Poilievre, Candice Bergen and Andrew Scheer have done in recent days, on the other hand, is. Their decision to ally themselves with the pseudo-Trumpian grift known as the “trucker” convoy – organized and led by documented racists and QAnon-style nutters, unrepresentative of the vast majority of truckers and indeed having little to do with truckers or even vaccine mandates – is not just a moral disgrace, but will do lasting damage to the party.
It is not only the power to dismiss the leader that caucus has assumed under the Reform Act. It has also the power to expel MPs from caucus – a power first exercised, deservedly, in the matter of Derek Sloan. It is a power that might usefully be deployed now, to bring the party’s yahoo faction to heel: either stop bringing the party into shame and disrepute, or pack up and go.
Again, this power should be used sparingly. Publicly criticizing the leader should not be grounds for expulsion; neither, certainly, should dissenting from party policy. But associating the party with known racists, tossing around incendiary rhetoric about other party leaders, indulging in discredited conspiracy theories – it is long since time Conservatives stopped tolerating this.
If that splits the party further, so be it. A house divided against itself cannot stand. But a house filled with lunatics is an asylum.
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