There were no winners – only various degrees of losers – after Monday’s merry-go-round election from which each party emerged nearly exactly where it had started.
The Liberals, the lesser of the losers, succeeded in earning re- election, but it came at the expense of the pride and reputation of its Leader, Justin Trudeau (not to mention a few hundred million in other expenses). Not only did Mr. Trudeau fail to secure the majority that was plainly his impetus for calling the election, but the Liberals’ victory came only by securing the lowest-ever voting share for a governing party in Canada’s history. It’s still a first-place finish, but the party ripped its pants and tripped over a hurdle along the way.
Then there were the bigger losers. There’s the Green Party, which had its worst result in terms of popular vote in years. There’s the People’s Party, which made relatively considerable gains but will still have no representation in Ottawa. There’s the Bloc Québécois, which failed to materially benefit from the stink it raised over a question during the campaign’s English-language debate. There’s the NDP, which didn’t find the support for its big spending promises one might expect from a country still in the midst of a pandemic. And then there’s the Conservatives, which made inroads in Atlantic Canada and won the popular vote, but nevertheless failed to secure gains in the House.
Of all of the vanquished leaders, however, the knives are only out for one (with the exception of Green Leader Annamie Paul, of course, whose party was sharpening their Henckels even before the election was called): Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole.
The murmurs about holding a leadership review for Mr. O’Toole have already begun in earnest. On Tuesday evening, a member of the party’s national council started circulating a petition to recall the Conservative Leader. And on election night, Conservative strategist Jenni Byrne – Stephen Harper’s former deputy chief of staff – lamented that Mr. O’Toole had lost a more “winnable” election compared to the one in 2019 (a debatable point, since the parties were in a statistical dead heat leading up to the 2019 election, as opposed to the substantial polling lead Mr. Trudeau had enjoyed as recently as August).
Theoretically, Mr. O’Toole and NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh should be in the same boat. Both failed to channel national frustration over a pandemic election call and turn it into material support; both delivered underwhelming results. But Mr. Singh, who led a campaign that saw the party claim 25 seats as of this writing – just one more than it held before – doesn’t appear to be in immediate jeopardy of losing his job.
The saga of former NDP leader Tom Mulcair, who was turfed by his party when the NDP won 44 seats in 2015 (that is, about 75 per cent better than it did on Monday), offers an explanation for why. While some of the frustration could be attributed to the come-down from Jack Layton’s “Orange Wave” four years earlier, which had elected a party-record 103 MPs, the dissatisfaction really stemmed from the way Mr. Mulcair pulled his party in an uncomfortable, centrist direction: He’d promised tax cuts, to balance the budget and to decriminalize – but not legalize – marijuana. Despite what was objectively a still great result for the party, Mr. Mulcair’s continued leadership was deemed untenable. Mr. Singh has now restored the party to a more comfortable ideological position, and though the effect might be that the NDP has been relegated to fourth-party status, members appear content to serve as a progressive influence in a minority Parliament – just as long as the NDP’s values are intact.
In this most recent election campaign, Mr. O’Toole effectively pulled a Mulcair, but in reverse: He dragged his party to the centre, calling himself a pro-choice, LGBTQ ally, flip-flopping on guns, making enormous spending promises, introducing a carbon pricing scheme, and even saying he’d allow provinces to keep the existing Liberal carbon tax. And he did it all after pulling something of a bait-and-switch, luring party members to support his “true blue” leadership campaign and then turning purple during the federal election campaign.
Surely, all would have been forgiven had the Conservatives actually won the election, or even if Mr. O’Toole had markedly increased his party’s representation in the House. But for all of his flip-flopping on carbon taxes and progressive talk on myriad social issues, the Conservatives got nothing. Indeed, both Mr. O’Toole and Mr. Singh failed to meaningfully increase their parties’ support this election, but only Mr. O’Toole betrayed his party’s principles in the process. That’s why Conservatives are gunning for him.
Whether it’s fair to turf Mr. O’Toole after just one election – particularly one where the Conservatives started out so far behind, and where they were thrown a wrench with worsening COVID-19 situations in conservative-run provinces – is another debate. But the chill in the air in Conservative circles nevertheless offers a clear message for Mr. O’Toole, and it’s the same one Mr. Mulcair learned years ago: If you’re going to shift the ideological direction of your party, you better win.
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