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opinion

After an attempt by a Conservative Party national council member to oust Erin O’Toole as leader the day after the Sept. 20 election, and a show of defiance last week by a group of Conservative MPs who formed a “civil liberties caucus” dedicated to the interests of anti-vaxxers, the party is faced with yet another internal rebellion.

A Conservative senator launched a petition this week asking members to support a review of Mr. O’Toole’s leadership.

Denise Batters says in a video that Mr. O’Toole “betrayed Conservative principles” when he unilaterally reversed party policies on gun control, carbon taxes and the right of health care workers to refuse to provide abortions or medically assisted death on religious grounds.

In doing so, Mr. O’Toole “ran an election campaign nearly indistinguishable from [Prime Minister Justin] Trudeau’s Liberals.” She says he lost the election because voters view him as “untrustworthy,” and that he can’t win the next election for that same reason. (Ms. Batters was expelled from caucus late Tuesday.)

Conservative Party officials have responded by pointing out that a leadership review can’t be initiated by a petition, no matter how many members sign it. And Conservative MPs loyal to Mr. O’Toole say Ms. Batters’ insurgency, which comes the week before Parliament returns on Monday, is hurting their cause.

“The Liberals are popping Champagne to you,” said Michelle Rempel Garner.

That’s a sentiment that was shared by the page just last week. A fractured Official Opposition is a gift to the minority Trudeau government. But given this latest rift, it may be time for the Conservatives to confront their inner demons.

After all, Ms. Batters is not wrong when she says Mr. O’Toole flip-flopped on major issues.

He did it because, in order to win the party leadership, he sold himself as a “true blue” Conservative and pandered to the narrow interests of the small, non-representative group of (right-leaning, sometimes crankish) party members who vote for the leader via ranked ballot.

As a leadership candidate, he came out firmly against carbon taxes, and positioned himself as the second choice to two hardcore social conservatives on the ballot, garnering many of their pro-life, anti-gay-marriage votes when they dropped out after the first and second rounds of voting.

But by the time the general election was held on Sept. 20, Mr. O’Toole was for a version of the carbon tax, firmly in favour of the rights of LGBTQ people, against the tabling of any legislation that limited abortion, and had reversed his party’s plan to lift a ban on semi-automatic weapons.

Mr. O’Toole was trying to woo Liberal voters in urban and suburban areas. It didn’t work. Not only did the Conservatives lose the election, they lost important seats in Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton and the Greater Toronto Area, and won a total of zero seats in the cities of Toronto and Montreal.

Ms. Batters is critical of Mr. O’Toole for losing those seats, and also says his “inability to communicate or connect with female voters created an even wider gender gap.”

Does she really believe he would have wooed female voters with policies to limit abortion and loosen gun controls? Does she think he could have won over significant numbers of voters in Toronto with a vow to end carbon taxes? Has she seen how Torontonians vote?

Many things are true at the same time in this Conservative civil war. Yes, Mr. O’Toole betrayed some of the people who voted him leader. Yes, he changed party policy on the fly during the campaign. Yes, he softened his positions to have a better chance of wooing new voters. Yes, that was a politically smart move, even if it didn’t work.

And yes, he has a trust deficit, both inside his party and among voters in general, who are never quite sure which Erin O’Toole is talking: the true blue Conservative or the vaguely red Tory.

Ms. Batters and others like her in the Conservative Party are not going to go away because fellow members plead with them not to cause an ill-timed distraction.

A better response might be to call their bluff and hold a leadership review sooner rather than later. Mr. O’Toole could outline his direction for the party and, if the support is there, come away with a strengthened mandate and greater unity.

Or not. One way or the other, voters would have a clearer picture of where the party best situated to one day defeat the Liberals actually stands on important issues.