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Conservative leader Erin O'Toole holds a press conference on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on March 2, 2021.Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

You have to feel for Erin O’Toole. The Conservative Leader has been busily reinventing himself at regular intervals – as the principled, “True Blue” candidate of the leadership race who wants to make Canada “the world’s freest economy,” but also the union-courting leader who rails against “bad trade deals” and is in no hurry to balance the budget; as the social conservatives’ best friend who campaigned against “cancel culture and the radical left” and wouldn’t say whether Canada suffered from systemic racism, but also the pro-choice champion of a more inclusive party; as a Trump-lite “Canada First” Conservative who attacks financial and corporate “elites” for “betraying” the country, but also the “moderate, pragmatic, mainstream” Conservative who has no use for the “far right.”

And yet, after all this, people complain they don’t know what he stands for!

Opinion polls show he is the least popular of all federal leaders, with a net favourability rating (the number who view him favourably minus those with an unfavourable view), according to a February Angus Reid Institute survey, of negative 22. Worse, members of his caucus are starting to feel the same way. They’re confused, demoralized and pleading for direction. “What is our platform? What are we doing?” one Conservative MP inquired – rhetorically, one supposes – of the Toronto Star.

Some of this is the inevitable doldrums any opposition leader encounters, lacking either the plums of office (to keep caucus in line) or control of the agenda (to keep the media interested) – a problem made infinitely worse by the pandemic.

Some, likewise, is the cost of the sorts of difficult but necessary choices leaders are elected to make. No, Pierre Poilievre is probably not the sort of face the party wants to present in the coming election. But he is immensely popular in the party, and it was to be expected that his demotion from Finance critic would raise hackles.

But some of it is down to unforced errors. The turfing of Derek Sloan from caucus, while probably beneficial in the long run, was ineptly handled; Mr. O’Toole was too quick to go public on the basis of too slim a pretext (Mr. Sloan’s mistake in accepting a donation from a neo-Nazi was no worse than the party’s), leaving caucus with little choice but to sack Mr. Sloan on the spot or humiliate their Leader.

Too often, the Leader who has said he wants to change the party’s tone has seemed to revert to populist type, as tin-eared as it is trigger-happy: complaining that prisoners were being vaccinated before the elderly, for example. That’s in moments that were intended to be public. In leaked comments before a Ryerson University student group (“most of the lefty radicals are also the dumbest people” on campus) or in an apparent leadership campaign out-take in which he suggests relocating Justin Trudeau’s office to a porta-potty, Mr. O’Toole has seemed to confirm suspicions that he is less high-minded statesman than low-flying political knee-capper.

For all Mr. O’Toole’s personal failings, the greatest part of the problem remains his persistent casting about on policy. If the Tories have failed to capitalize on the government’s growing unpopularity – of the five in 100 Canadians who have left the Liberal fold since the spring, according to the polls, just one has gone to the Conservatives, while four have gone to the NDP – it is because the party has given people no positive reason to support it. Six months into Mr. O’Toole’s tenure, the party’s message remains, in essence, “we’re not the Liberals.”

To be sure, as messages go, “not the Liberals” has a certain appeal. The current generation of Liberals offer an unappetizing mix of preening personal and moral vanity, doctrinaire ideology (the more so the less relevant the issue is to the average voter), and an abiding cynicism, gusting to corruption. A sizeable percentage of the electorate could probably be persuaded to defect from the Liberals to any competently led Conservative Party, provided they could be assured its leader possessed the right temperament and values.

Alas, the best way for a leader to display his temperament and values – his character, if you will – is through policy. Probably most voters do not root about in the details of a party’s platforms. But they do get a sense of what the leader’s priorities are, what lines in the sand he is prepared to draw, and what enemies he is prepared to make.

At this point, with the budget coming and the scent of an election in the air, the particulars of the policies the party and its leader choose to adopt matter less than the choice itself. A leader who cannot, within the nearest 180 degrees, decide on a course is only notionally leader. And notional leaders have a way of finding themselves back among the led.

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