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Leader of the Opposition Erin O'Toole rises during Question Period in the House of Commons on Nov. 5, 2020.

Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

If Erin O’Toole keeps things up, he will have a great shot at winning the 1989 NDP leadership race.

The Conservative Party Leader’s skepticism about international trade, his unabashed support for unionized workers and his progressive attitude on social issues will give Audrey McLaughlin a run for her money. Keep checking your pagers for results, everyone: this leadership race is going to be a close one.

“Corporate and financial power brokers,” Mr. O’Toole said in a video posted back on Labour Day, “care more about their shareholders than their employees. They love trade deals with China that allow them to access cheap labour.”

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“Private-sector union membership has collapsed,” he bemoaned in an October address to the Canadian Club Toronto. “Too much power is in the hands of a few corporate and financial elites.”

Meanwhile, the contemporary NDP, which has migrated from the party of the blue-collar worker to that of the turtlenecked young urbanite who includes his preferred pronouns in his dissertation, is left to watch forlorn as Mr. O’Toole encroaches on the territory they’ve relinquished over the last 30 years. The NDP can still come back to claim the assembly-line floor, of course, but they’ll have to finish pumping up their bike tires first.

Mr. O’Toole gave little indication during his run for the Conservative Party leadership that his “true blue” vision for Canada would lament free-trade deals, hype union membership and unironically use the word “solidarity” in a video address. As my colleague Andrew Coyne observed in a recent Globe column, Mr. O’Toole has shifted from a “principled conservative” to “populist-nationalist” so quickly that he barely resembles the candidate who was elected to lead the party just a few months ago. And it’s no doubt left some small-c conservatives wondering what, exactly, they voted for in August.

But it’s here I’d take care to point out, as an irrepressible cynic, that principled conservatism is mostly for think tanks and campus clubs. Mr. O’Toole has made clear in just a few months that his big, bold vision for modern conservatism is quite obviously about one core principle: winning. And while that might leave some small-c conservatives feeling cheated, big C-Conservatives are hopeful about the future of the party.

A true conservative who believes in small government and the rights of the individual would take umbrage, for example, with Quebec’s Bill 21, which prohibits certain public sector workers from wearing religious symbols. Indeed, it would be of particular concern to someone who, during the leadership race, promised to resurrect the Stephen Harper government’s Office of Religious Freedom, which was tasked with monitoring and promoting religious freedom abroad. But Mr. O’Toole’s approach on this issue has been to reaffirm his commitment to strengthening the “Quebec nation” – not because he necessarily cares a lick about whether a schoolteacher wears a hijab in Montreal, but because he wants to carve away support from the Bloc Québécois, as he and his team have quite explicitly stated. Thus, he’ll leave it to the think tanks and campus clubs to stand up for liberty and individual freedoms; this Conservative Party will happily forfeit principles for populism.

Mr. O’Toole will find himself in an even better spot to galvanize support soon, when Joe Biden takes over the White House. The Liberals will no longer have U.S. President Donald Trump against whom they can showcase their progressive mores, and the arrival of a President Biden – who has long pledged to cancel the Keystone XL pipeline – will force Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to awkwardly defend the long-delayed pipeline at a time when demand for oil is low, in between his government’s announcements about banning single-use plastics and planting a billion trees. The Conservatives are better positioned ideologically than the Liberals to stand up for Canadian interests on this and other issues, including China’s continued belligerence and the World Health Organization’s pandemic failures – and soon, they may be free to do so without appearing to side with Mr. Trump. Indeed, the bogeyman in the White House will be gone as of Jan. 20, and with him will go the Liberals' best opportunity to paint their Conservative opponent as a Canadian Donald-in-waiting.

That leaves Mr. O’Toole unencumbered to continue selling Canadians on his unique brand of true blue (C)onservatism: one that stands for free markets, sort of; religious freedom, in some provinces; small government, on some issues; and private enterprise, with new limitations. It’s a type of conservatism where strategy and popularity are the most important principles. “True blue,” we should gather, was just a euphemism for “electable.”

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