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It wasn’t the flip but the flops. Much too much has been made of Erin O’Toole’s alleged pandering to the hard right in his campaign for the leadership of the Conservative Party. His platform was, on the whole, a reassuringly mainstream statement of modern conservatism, albeit more robust than Canadian Conservatives had grown used to in the long, sideways drift of the Harper years. The rhetorical flourishes – “Take Canada Back” etc. – were of a kind commonly heard from candidates for every party. The same platform could easily have been adapted for use in the general election: a little more emphasis on some parts than others, a slight shift in tone, and the “pivot” was done.

Nothing required the abrupt lurch, or rather series of lurches, that in fact followed, the leader sounding one day like a Trumpian populist, the next like a New Democrat, before finally campaigning as a Liberal. No wonder members of caucus had whiplash, not least given the peremptory manner in which these tactical shifts were executed. Major changes in party policy were presented to them as faits accomplis. MPs were ordered to endorse every line of the party platform, on pain of expulsion. If party members at large felt they’d been had, caucus must have felt like it had been kidnapped.

In the wake of the election loss, Mr. O’Toole’s dealings with his critics in the party became even more high-handed: expelling one from caucus, ordering an investigation into another. It’s a scene often witnessed in Canadian politics: brutal suppression of dissent, intended to secure the leader from challenge but all too often contributing to his demise – though not before months or years of debilitating internal infighting (see Diefenbaker, Clark, Turner, Day, Chrétien, etc.). Dictatorship, followed by civil war: that has been the pattern until now.

In Mr. O’Toole’s case, it was all over in two days, from Monday’s letter to the caucus chair from 35 Conservative MPs requesting a leadership review to Wednesday’s historic vote to remove him. The difference, of course, was the Reform Act, passed in 2014 but not fully endorsed by any party until last October, when Conservative MPs voted to accept all four of the powers available to them under the act: not only the power to elect the caucus chair or expel an MP, but also to remove the leader, and elect an interim leader. Perhaps, when Mr. O’Toole told reporters he did not feel he had the “sword of Damocles” hanging over him, he really meant it. Perhaps he thought caucus would never use its newfound power. He knows better now.

Mr. O’Toole’s leadership was not the only problem facing the party – its internal divisions, as I wrote recently, are the real issue, of which his uncertain leadership was more consequence than cause – nor will it necessarily fare any better under a new leader. But the decision to remove him could have highly salutary effects in the long-term, and not only for the Conservative Party. After this, any future Conservative leader will be on notice: treat the caucus with respect, or face the same fate as Mr. O’Toole. The example having been set, it is not inconceivable that members of other party caucuses may one day demand a similar measure of respect. It was one thing when all caucuses were under the same yoke, seemingly in perpetuity. But now that the Conservatives have broken free, there is at last the potential for a “backbench spring,” a fundamental change in the balance of power between leader and caucus.

Of course, the revolution is as yet half-complete. The Reform Act may have eliminated the long drawn-out process of removing a leader, but it left intact the long drawn-out process of choosing a new one. In the classical Westminster model, both were the responsibility of the parliamentary caucus: it is the caucus, after all, that the leader leads. In Canada, however, leaders have come to be elected by the membership at large – supplemented by tens of thousands of “instant members,” with no previous allegiance to the party – leaving the leader, between elections, accountable to no one. Even as it was debating whether to remove Mr. O’Toole, the Conservative caucus must have been somewhat deterred, as future caucuses might, by the prospect of a costly and divisive campaign of six months or more to replace him. That contradiction surely cannot be sustained: if caucus can no longer be compelled to accept a leader who is repugnant to it, that implies it should also have a say in choosing the leader.

But for now the die is cast: there is no avoiding the coming struggle. Many will try to frame the campaign as a choice between Liberal Lite and far right – or populist right – as if rejecting the one necessarily meant embracing the other. Others will suggest the party must choose between power and principle. But these are false oppositions. It is entirely possible for the party to offer voters a principled, conservative alternative to the governing Liberals, without turning its back on power. Voters are far more open to persuasion than is sometimes assumed. They are less inclined to measure proposals against their prior convictions than are partisans or ideologues, for the simple reason that they have none.

Rather, they tend to assess them in light of the credibility of their proponents. Present yourself as a sensible, thoughtful person, who has come to his position by a process of mature reflection rather than by tribal association; who has been persuaded by the facts, and could be persuaded otherwise by a different set of facts; who treats the voters, in short, like adults, and you can get a hearing for the most radical ideas. This is a point that Conservatives, with their long history of electoral failure, never seem to get. They do not think they can persuade others to their point of view, so they do not try, preferring to wind up their existing followers with a lot of hobbyhorse issues of no relevance to anyone else – or, when that fails, to bleach themselves of any distinguishing features, in hopes that voters will confuse them for their opponents.

The latter approach having lost them the last election, they seem about to revert to the former, which lost them the previous two. Rather than serious proposals for change, seriously presented, they will offer nothing of substance, loudly shouted. Which is more or less the definition of populism. Which is the opposite of conservatism.

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