The Conservative Party’s impulse will be to veer right, now that caucus has rid itself of its little experiment with centrism. With Erin O’Toole out of the top job, he likely takes with him the last affirmative mention of carbon taxes that will waft through the office of the leader of the opposition for some time, along with some of the most progressive positions on social issues that a Conservative leader in this country has ever held.
Some of Mr. Toole’s moves leftward might yet stick around; it was politically smart, for example, to try to appeal to unionized blue-collar workers, even if the approach wasn’t traditionally Conservative. But the party’s membership – which had been grumbling about Mr. O’Toole’s pivot to the centre ever since it became clear he sold them a fake “true blue” promise – isn’t going to be clamouring for another red Tory to lead it though its next phase.
But pulling the party away from the centre-right, back to a more comfortable right-flank position, may only make it harder for the Conservatives to achieve what all of this angst is ultimately about: The party needs to make inroads in suburbia – specifically, in the Greater Toronto Area. A Conservative leader who drives a diesel truck to the gun range where he laments the new androgynous status of Mr. Potato Head might deepen the party’s support in rural Alberta and Saskatchewan, but from an electoral perspective, that doesn’t matter. And indeed, it will probably just hurt the Conservatives in the regions where they desperately need to increase their support in order to have a reasonable shot at forming government.
The party tried running with a more traditionally Conservative leader just a couple of years ago, and it also lost. Andrew Scheer promised to cut taxes, to balance the books in five years and to repeal the carbon tax, all while staying as far away from a gay pride parade as his campaign schedule would possibly allow. The deck was arguably stacked better for the Conservatives ahead of that election: At the time, the Liberals were steeped in the SNC-Lavalin scandal, among others, and it was revealed during the campaign that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had worn blackface on more than one occasion. The Conservatives were essentially neck-and-neck with the Liberals a couple of months before the election in 2019, whereas they were trailing by more than 10 points ahead of the election in 2021. Yet the result each Conservative leader delivered – in popular vote and seat count – was virtually identical.
What both leaders suffered from was a distinct lack of authenticity, as well as a crippling inability to connect with voters on a basic human level. Mr. Scheer’s campaign was more about axiomatic opposition to all things Trudeau, rather than offering a clear, comprehensive vision for a better Canada with him as leader (it didn’t help that he looked to be suffering from a gastrointestinal issue every time someone asked him about gay marriage). Mr. O’Toole’s incessant flip-flopping made it impossible for voters to understand who he was and what he stood for, rendering him a sort of Conservative marionette who wouldn’t commit to a statement about which side the sun rises. Leaders who craft simple narratives about themselves tend to be able to reach and resonate with quasi-tuned-in voters: Justin Trudeau as a progressive optimist; Doug Ford as a man for the little guy; Jason Kenney as Alberta’s advocate. Erin O’Toole … once served in the Armed Forces? And doesn’t really like vaccine mandates?
It’s a tough thing for members of any party to see outside their bubbles to predict how a leader will connect with the public. That insular phenomenon explains why, for example, Conservatives will hear angels sing when they hear Pierre Poilievre make his 12th joke about the Prime Minister wearing blackface, not realizing that much of the rest of the country simply hears a partisan Poindexter trying to make his pals laugh. It doesn’t help that leadership campaigns are generally myopic exercises, steeped in all sorts of internal politics and esoteric policy debates that probably won’t matter when the leadership race is over.
In theory, it was probably the right approach – tactically speaking – for Mr. O’Toole to campaign for the Conservative leadership as a true blue, then pivot to the centre for the general election in order to be as palatable as possible to the widest swath of Canadians. But his change was so stark that it left the membership feeling duped and betrayed, and he never quite found a way to relay to Canadians what his centre-right vision would look like. Constantly changing your mind will do that. The Conservatives need a normal, affable, relatable new leader far more than they need one who will bring the party back over to the right. But they might be too busy laughing at Mr. Poilievre’s jokes to come to that realization.
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