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Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole attends a Stampede pancake breakfast in Calgary on July 10, 2021.

Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press

The official line in Conservative circles is: Don’t panic. Campaigns matter, a week is a long time in politics, remember what happened to David Peterson, etc.

The unofficial line is: Panic. It isn’t just that the Liberals hold a substantial lead in public opinion (six recent polls put them between eight and 14 points ahead). It’s that the Tories have very little room to grow.

A new Abacus Data poll finds just 41 per cent of voters would even consider voting Conservative. That’s well behind the Liberals (56 per cent) of course, but it’s also behind the NDP (48 per cent). It’s barely ahead of the Greens (33 per cent).

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How did it come to this, that the party of Confederation could have fallen into such odium that six in ten voters will not even consider voting for it?

Erin O’Toole needs to show he is a leader who can lead

The tendency will be to blame the leader, and certainly Erin O’Toole’s approval numbers must be dismaying to Conservative supporters. Just 14 per cent of respondents in the latest Nanos poll picked him as their preferred prime minister, versus 37 per cent for Justin Trudeau – and 18 per cent for Jagmeet Singh.

But the Conservatives’ woes did not begin with Mr. O’Toole’s leadership, and they will not end there. In six elections under the unified Conservative banner, the party has averaged just short of 35 per cent of the vote – four percentage points less, on average, than the old Progressive Conservative and Reform/Canadian Alliance parties used to get, between them, in the years when the movement was divided.

Of course, the Grits have fared even worse over the same period, averaging just 31 per cent of the vote since 2004. But Liberal weakness masks a more enduring strength: while the party has lost some support to the NDP, the Greens and the Bloc, it has a much bigger pool of progressive voters to fish from. With the right leader, it can still aspire to power. Whereas it’s not clear even a strong leader could save the Tories.

Some of that is explicable in terms of policy. On many of the most important issues of the day, Conservatives have either had nothing to say (hello, climate change) or have actively antagonized voters they might otherwise have reached (race, immigration, marriage equality).

More broadly, the party seems to have lost its nerve, unable even to advance traditional conservative policies – free markets, lower taxes, balanced budgets – with any vigour. The left has been right about more things than the right in recent years, but right or wrong it has been demonstrably more confident.

More confident and … more cheerful. Beyond leadership or policy, the Conservative malaise seems even more to do with what I might call the party’s temperament: not just its image but its persona, the deeper qualities of disposition that are revealing of character. Something in the Conservative temperament has simply become repellent to a great many people.

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If the besetting sin of Liberals is smarmy sanctimoniousness, the Conservative equivalent is a chippy defensiveness, an adolescent petulance, a conviction that the cards are perpetually stacked against them. Fair enough, up to a point: decades of what the late Richard Gwyn called “one-and-a-half party rule” have left their inevitable residue – a bureaucracy, a judiciary and a press gallery that are inclined to see the world, if not through Liberal glasses, then certainly through liberal ones.

Far worse, however, has been its toll on the Conservative psyche. The same fundamental insecurity that, in a Joe Clark or a Bob Stanfield, emerged as a kind of apologetic cough of deference to liberal elites, is also at work in today’s smirking Conservative populist. Though Canadian Conservatives have not gone so far down that road as their counterparts elsewhere – there is nothing to compare to the Republicans’ current mix of white nationalism, LOL-nothing-matters nihilism, and lunatic, QAnon-inspired conspiracy theories – they are too willing to nod in that direction.

Moreover, while the Liberals, as the party of power and therefore of cabinet posts, have always been able to recruit individuals with a record of accomplishment in other fields, the Conservatives tend to get stuck with the lifers, people who have never done anything but partisan politics and are motivated by nothing so much as hatred of the Grits. Which may explain why the party’s leading lights so often look and sound like campus Conservatives.

In sports it is often observed that a team might have the best players or the best strategy, but if it does not have a winning culture, that elusive gel of belief in itself, it is still doomed to defeat. Until the Conservatives develop that culture – until they acquire some self-respect, put a smile on their face, and act like grown-ups – they will be condemned to the same.

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