When Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced in early August that he was considering making COVID-19 vaccinations mandatory for federal employees, no one feared the news more than his principal political opponent: Erin O’Toole.
The Conservative Opposition Leader and his brain trust were preparing for an election call at any time. Now, they had to decide how they would respond to the idea of mandatory vaccinations, a measure Mr. O’Toole knew would be opposed by a defiant group of freedom fighters in his caucus.
Mr. O’Toole and his top advisers immediately convened a meeting to discuss how they would deal with the issue on the campaign trail, including how they would answer the question of whether all of their candidates were fully vaccinated. They were certain the Liberals and the NDP would make this a condition for running under their respective banners. What would the Conservatives say?
“A minority of our caucus viewed mandatory vaccinations as a human-rights issue,” a senior party source told The Globe and Mail. “Many of us regarded this view as deeply misguided and wrong, but if we hadn’t respected it we would have faced a full-scale revolt with a number of our MPs.” (The Globe is not identifying the sources in this story because they do not have the authority to speak publicly.)
If there was a turning point in the 2021 federal election campaign, this was it: the move by Mr. O’Toole to kowtow to a minority in his caucus – believed to be a couple dozen – for whom the idea of making vaccines mandatory was a civil-rights issue. This decision represents a microcosm of the challenge now facing the Conservative Leader – reconciling his desire to position his party in the middle of the political spectrum with the reality his efforts will be resisted by an influential element in his caucus who don’t share their leader’s more progressive inclinations.
Already playing out, I would argue, is a fight for the soul of the Conservative Party of Canada, a fight that, broadly speaking, pits party supporters west of Ontario who believe the CPC should reflect a stricter sense of conservative values and principles (the old Reform Party wing) against those who support the leader’s wish to put the word “progressive” back in the conservative brand and become relevant in growing urban areas in Ontario, Quebec and British Columbia.
It is a battle between those who see the influence they once had in the party under Stephen Harper being corroded, and a new generation of conservatives who believe strongly that the party needs to be less white, less old, more urban, more female and generally one that better reflects the cultural demographics of the country. It is a battle that could become a war that could, I believe, lead to an implosion of the tenuous coalition that was fused 18 years ago, when the Canadian Alliance (the successor to Reform) merged with the Progressive Conservatives.
If nothing else, the election demonstrated just how fraught the situation is.
Back in August, the idea of requiring candidates to be fully vaccinated as a condition for running was so contentious that Mr. O’Toole’s team was concerned a group of MPs might desert the Conservatives if such a rule were enforced.
To avoid this showdown, Mr. O’Toole capitulated, deciding he would simply not answer reporters’ questions when asked how many of his candidates had been vaccinated. It made him look evasive and weak. The party also took a position against vaccine mandates, saying the decision to get inoculated against COVID-19 should be a personal one. Again, it was a position at odds with polls that showed more than 75 per cent of Canadians favoured mandates.
“Personally, I wish we had taken them [caucus resisters] on at the time and let the chips fall where they may,” the senior party source said. “But we didn’t and after that the die was cast. We handed Justin Trudeau a cudgel with which he walloped us throughout the campaign, but especially in the last two weeks. It was the No. 1 thing that hurt us, without a doubt.”
Earlier this month, Mr. O’Toole survived his first parliamentary caucus meeting after the election. But he is anything but clear of future troubles. The caucus voted to give itself the power to order a leadership review at any time (something that requires the support of just 20 per cent of Tory MPs) or get rid of the leader completely if a majority of the caucus, voting by secret ballot, decide this is in the best interests of the party. In other words, Mr. O’Toole may have dodged a bullet only to be fatally wounded another day.
He is surely bracing for more adversity, not the least of which will come from inside his own party. At the end of it all, he may have scars on his bottom lip from having to bite down on it so hard. He will have to listen to those who only have their own personal political interests at heart, not the party’s.
The standoff Mr. O’Toole faced over mandatory vaccines may look like small stuff compared with matters that lie ahead. But it could not have been more significant and consequential.
Greg Lyle, president of Innovative Research Group, says he believes the call Mr. O’Toole made on the vaccination question was an election game changer – and not for the better.
In a postelection poll of 2,329 Canadians, Mr. Lyle asked the question: Did the following factor related to the federal election make you more or less likely to vote Conservative – Erin O’Toole’s decision to not require his candidates to be vaccinated against COVID-19?
Within the city limits of Toronto and Vancouver, that move by the Conservatives made 45 per cent of those polled a lot or somewhat less likely to vote for the party. In the Vancouver and Toronto suburbs, it was 40 per cent; in other large cities of one million or fewer, it was 39 per cent; in medium-sized to small towns, it was 41 per cent; in towns with fewer than 100,000, it was 33 per cent. Even in rural and small towns, the number was 38 per cent.
And on the question of which party would do the best job of confronting further waves of COVID-19, the Liberals held a near two-to-one margin over the Conservatives in the cities of Vancouver and Toronto (37 per cent to 19 per cent), a healthy 31 per cent to 18 per cent in the suburbs of those two cities, a more than double-sized lead in other large cities (38 per cent to 15 per cent), and a roughly two-to-one edge in medium-sized to small towns and in rural small towns.
“On the matter of vaccines, the Tories were completely offside with the public,” Mr. Lyle said. “The Tory base was polarized on the issue of restrictions and, consequently, the party as a whole completely misread the room. The math was real simple and it said: You don’t go soft on this issue.
“It was easily the biggest thing that cost them, especially in the late stages of the campaign when the Delta variant was surging in Alberta and other places.”
It made the Tories look detached from reality and exposed the internal malaise around the party’s identity.
Similarly, the Conservatives looked out of touch on the issue of guns. The Liberals distributed pictures of weapons used in some of the deadliest mass shootings in North America, saying Mr. O’Toole and the Conservatives would legalize them.
Mr. Trudeau pointed to the CPC platform and its promise to repeal the Liberal government’s ban on 1,500 assault-style weapons, a nod to the country’s gun lobby and the extreme right of the party’s base. Mr. O’Toole had pandered unabashedly to those groups during his successful leadership run in 2020.
But in the suburbs, where Mr. O’Toole hoped to make election gains, the idea of allowing any assault-style weapons to be sold in stores in Canada makes no sense. The Conservatives spent almost a week wringing their hands on the issue, searching for a way to acknowledge the majority view without angering their base.
The party ultimately decided to leave the ban in place until a review of the guns being outlawed could take place. But the four-day delay in arriving at a decision sucked the oxygen right out of the CPC campaign.
The vaccination debacle and the gun controversy are good examples of why Mr. O’Toole’s task of designing a modern-looking Conservative Party that is a reflection of rural and urban sensibilities will be so difficult. The fact is, those sensibilities are often at odds.
The country is increasingly being divided along rural-urban lines, and the danger for Conservatives is the suburbs are now becoming politically and culturally urbanized. Those suburbs don’t look like the Conservative caucus either, which is 95 per cent white.
“We have a lot of work ahead of us to overcome the negative impression that voters in the suburbs and new Canadian voters have of our party,” the Tory party source said. “For many new Canadians, we’re still the party of snitch lines and burkas and barbaric cultural practices. It’s a problem.”
“For suburban voters, you still hear words like ‘Republicans’ and ‘too extreme’ to describe us. ‘Too socially conservative,’ ” the source added. “It’s everything that is bad about the Conservative brand and it’s going to take a while to change that perception.”
One such issue that might have contributed to that view is conversion therapy. Bill C-6, which was introduced by the Liberal government in 2020 but never passed, would have made it a criminal offence to cause an individual to undergo the therapy (in which a therapist tries to persuade a gay person to be straight). Mr. O’Toole supported the bill, but 62 other CPC MPs voted against it.
Not surprisingly, during this year’s election campaign, the Liberals drew attention to CPC candidates who had voted against the ban. In British Columbia alone, four of the 12 Tory MPs who voted against the bill were defeated in their Metro Vancouver ridings. For many voters, the idea that a person could support such a deplorable technique is repugnant.
A postelection study conducted by Western University professors David Armstrong and Zack Taylor reveals just how deeply rooted the urban-rural divide is in Canadian politics.
The metropolitan areas of Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver account for 116 of Canada’s 338 ridings, the duo’s research found. Of those, the Liberals won 86, while the Tories claimed just eight. Of the 150 least-urban ridings in the country, the Conservatives took 81 and the Liberals won just 34. In a country that is becoming more urbanized by the day, which category would you rather own?
Of course, for some the answer depends on where you reside.
Consider Conservative MP Shannon Stubbs. She was re-elected in her northeastern Alberta riding of Lakeland, winning 69 per cent of the popular vote. Most candidates would be ecstatic with a victory of that size. But not Ms. Stubbs, whose vote total was down from 83.9 per cent in the 2019 election.
Ms. Stubbs could have spent the election campaign in Las Vegas and likely still have won handily. Instead, she fumed at her result after the election and at Mr. O’Toole, saying a review of his leadership should happen within six months. She was also critical of the leader’s shift away from the “true blue” Conservative platform he used to win the party leadership, and his move to the more moderate and mainstream manifesto he campaigned on during the election.
MPs such as Ms. Stubbs and many of her fellow western Conservative politicians will try to push the leader away from the centre and back to the right on everything from carbon taxes to gun rights.
And it’s not just Ms. Stubbs. Jenni Byrne, an influential Conservative backroom operative and deputy chief of staff to then-prime minister Stephen Harper, also has it in for Mr. O’Toole, saying he is the greatest threat to the current Conservative coalition since its founding in December, 2003.
The Campaign Life Coalition, a socially conservative pro-life organization, also wants Mr. O’Toole gone. It put out a statement last week saying it feels betrayed by the leader’s repositioning of the Conservatives. The statement said only “ousting [him] can save the party from an inevitable collapse similar to the federal PC Party’s meltdown in 1993,” when the PCs were reduced to two seats in the House of Commons. The coalition asserts it recruited more than 26,000 members to the Conservative Party a couple of years ago – members it will turn against the current leader if he remains in the job.
Mr. O’Toole has a broad swath of the party’s grassroots membership angry with him as well.
The party’s 250,000-plus donor base consists of many residents of rural Canada, whose opinion couldn’t be more outside the mainstream views of people living elsewhere in the country. Here, I’m talking about everything from climate change and pipelines to abortion and the LGBTQ community. Mr. O’Toole can’t afford to be too offside with his donor base, but it’s likely he already is – he not only lost the election, he betrayed many of the party faithful with his ideological about-face after winning the leadership.
“The membership, the donor base, are very upset with Erin for effectively lying to them about who he really is,” another senior-ranking Tory told me recently. “I don’t think many have ever seen anything quite as cynical as what Erin did: going from this God-fearing, gun-clutching, true blue conservative during the leadership to a platform that is likely the most liberal any conservative party in Canada has ever run on.
“The problem for Erin is he’s created a trust gap that Stephen Harper never had to battle. At a time when it’s critical that people fall in behind him to allow him to lead, people don’t believe him. That’s a dangerous place for a leader to be in his party.”
Of course, Mr. O’Toole has three years, maybe even four, to make things right, to still the anger that exists among the Conservative base, especially in the West. That is, if he survives as Tory Leader. He will have to face a leadership review at some point.
And it is difficult to see how Mr. O’Toole will resolve his most pressing dilemma: pushing ahead with a centrist agenda while mollifying the more right-wing elements of the party. Can he double down on his strategy of trying to appeal to blue-collar workers and expand the pool of potential Tory voters, while not pushing the “progressive change” button so hard it ends up blowing up the party?
“At some point, the Conservatives and their many factions have to decide if they truly want to win or not,” said Mr. Lyle, the pollster. “Because to win means accepting not just compromise but, in some cases, accepting policies that don’t always align with your own values or those of your constituents.”
That includes the question of vaccines. As Parliament gets set to resume, the Conservatives will have to face the same issue that dogged them during the campaign: vaccine mandates. The House of Commons’ Board of Internal Economy decided this week that anyone who enters the precincts as of Nov. 22, when Parliament is set to return, must be fully vaccinated. Mr. Trudeau has said the only party that seems to have an issue with this is the Tories.
Already, there has been public pushback from some Conservative MPs. Mark Strahl, a Tory MP from B.C., earlier called the government’s initiative “discriminatory” and “coercive,” and something that “must be opposed.” Conservative Whip Blake Richards issued a statement Wednesday saying while his party encourages everyone to get vaccinated, it disagreed the board should decide “which of 338 MPs ... can enter the House of Commons.” Later the same day, Mr. O’Toole said in a television interview that his party would comply with the new policy but it was unclear if the Conservatives would continue disputing it.
After surviving his first caucus meeting, this is Erin O’Toole’s first big postelection test. He’ll need to handle it – and a lot of other matters – better than he did on the campaign trail. There is nothing less than the future of the Conservative Party of Canada at stake.
And at this point, I’m not sure it survives.
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