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Conservative leader Erin O'Toole holds a press conference in Ottawa on Oct. 22, 2020.Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

What is a political party? Is it a group of people with a common set of policies who seek power to put them into effect? Or is power a party’s only objective, its policies simply whatever it takes to attain it?

The model for the first is the NDP, or the Green Party, or even the Bloc, I suppose. They hold a set of beliefs about state and society, and put them forward, with some variation of tone and emphasis, in election after election. Sometimes they do well, sometimes they do poorly, but they remain largely unwavering in their commitment to their beliefs. The point is to influence opinion and shape policy, not necessarily to win elections. And in that ambition, they have been broadly successful.

The model for the second is the Liberal Party. Over the decades, the Liberals have tacked back and forth, sometimes favouring the expansion of the state, sometimes its contraction, sometimes offering radical change, sometimes reassuring stability – but always with an eye to what will get and keep them in power. And in that ambition they, too, have been broadly successful: the party has governed Canada for 83 out of the past 124 years, winning 23 out of 36 elections.

The Conservatives would seem to occupy a unique position in Canadian political life, combining (as I’ve written before) the commitment to principle of the Liberals with the electoral success of the NDP. The party has taken each new defeat as a signal to reinvent itself yet again, jettisoning policies it had only recently adopted and adopting new ones just in time to toss them aside. It is perpetually dismayed to discover the public does not find this approach terribly persuasive – with the result that the party has neither governed much, historically, nor been particularly influential.

So unsuccessful has the party been that many Conservatives have convinced themselves the problem is not with the messengers but the message – their inability to persuade Canadians to support either their principles or the party has not been because they have generally not had any principles and done a miserable job of selling the ones they had, but because the country is innately hostile to both, party and principle. “Canada,” as more than one Conservative has put it, “is a Liberal country.” Which is, at least, a belief system, even if it’s one they share with the Liberals.

So there is a context to what Erin O’Toole is attempting, with his hot rhetoric about the middle-class having been “betrayed” by “financial elites,” his denunciations of “unfair trade deals” and “corporate power brokers,” his unabashed embrace of Trumpian branding (“Canada First”) and policies (“It’s not different at all. In fact, there’s more self-sufficiency”), in all his repositioning of the party as a populist force, mixing equal parts cultural resentment and economic interventionism. It is neither bold nor particularly new, and while it probably won’t work, the broader point is that it wouldn’t much matter if it did.

It’s not that he has not correctly identified the problem. Through election after election since the party’s founding, or rather refounding, in 2004, the Conservatives have found themselves bumping up against a “ceiling” of about 36 per cent or 37 per cent cent of the popular vote – enough to form a minority government, sometimes, but not (with one exception) a majority. Indeed, the unified party has averaged a smaller vote share than the combined total of the Reform and Progressive Conservative parties it replaced.

So the Conservatives are right to want to expand their base, rather than simply pitching to the same group of voters over and over again. And certainly as a party you want to be relevant, with policies that are plausibly directed to solving the problems uppermost in people’s minds. It’s one thing to be true to your beliefs, but it’s also worth re-examining them from time to time to see if they still stand up – or whether there is any realistic chance of persuading others to accept them. If it’s really true that there’s no market for what you’re selling, at some point you just have to accept it.

But it’s not as if the Tories have been shut out altogether. They won three elections out of six in that time, and even when they lost they were close. They led the polls through much of the 2004 election, and were ahead late in both the 2015 and 2019 campaigns. Yet the lesson the Tories have taken away from these defeats is not that they ran bad campaigns or had poor leaders, or even that their message was too narrowly cast, but that they were too principled, too high-minded, too conservative.

This requires a quite breathtaking amount of revisionism. Under Stephen Harper the party engaged in much the same repositioning as it is now attempting. The Harper Conservatives ran big deficits, littered the tax system with boutique tax credits, blocked foreign takeovers, subsidized industry, abandoned pro-incentive income tax cuts in favour of no-incentive GST cuts – the works.

But who knows? Maybe repackaging themselves as the same thing will work this time. Maybe, having given his own members the bait-and-switch – running for leader as a “principled conservative” only to abandon both principle and conservatism the minute he was elected – Mr. O’Toole can pull the same trick with the electorate at large. Maybe the leadership candidate who campaigned against “fat cat union leaders” can now pivot to wooing union members. Maybe.

Or maybe he will run into the same credibility gap Conservatives always run into. For if the public has no reason to think Conservatives believe anything they say they believe, they also have no reason to think they’ll do anything they say they will do. Worse: Maybe they would do a lot of things their opponents say they would do. If we can’t trust them to do the things they say they will, why should we trust them not to do the things they say they won’t?

Far from persuading new voters to give them a chance, the new-old Tories may succeed only in reviving fears of hidden agendas – while alienating and confusing their existing supporters. For his part, Mr. O’Toole seems especially inauthentic in his new guise, given not only his recent leadership campaign but his prior history as a cabinet minister in the Harper government.

Which are his true beliefs, many voters will be prompted to ask: the ones he talked about before? Or the ones he’s talking about today? Was he lying then, or is he lying now?

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