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Conservative Party leader Erin O’Toole speaks at a press conference in Ottawa on Feb. 16, 2021.David Kawai/The Canadian Press

It’s hard not to be sympathetic to the plight of Conservative Party Leader Erin O’Toole these days. There are two big things standing between him and the Prime Minister’s Office: the Trudeau Liberals, and his own party.

The minority-government Liberals, with the acquiescence of the NDP and the Bloc Québécois, have used the COVID-19 crisis to sideline Parliament and run the country via press conference from outside Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s residence in Ottawa.

In the absence of regular Parliamentary sessions and the daily theatre of Question Period, Mr. O’Toole has been deprived of the usual venues for getting his voice heard – a job that is difficult enough for a rookie opposition leader even in normal times.

This explains why, six months after he was chosen as party leader in a virtual convention, the Conservative Party is still running ads introducing Mr. O’Toole to the Canadian public. “Do you know who this is? Probably not,” the narrator says in a spot posted on Twitter on Wednesday.

The pandemic’s net political effect has been to reverse the scandal-prone Mr. Trudeau’s dismal approval ratings, taking them from 33 per cent one year ago – when pipeline and rail blockades (remember those?) dominated the news – to 50 per cent this week, according to polling firm Angus Reid. Using a national crisis to railroad the agenda and curtail the opposition will do that.

Mr. O’Toole now faces the prospect of an election later this year, when Mr. Trudeau hopes that any lingering anger over his government’s clumsy vaccination rollout and the country’s generally mediocre COVID-19 performance will be erased by a steady delivery of jabs and a resulting sense of relief that will play in his party’s favour.

Overcoming the Liberals’ strategic advantage is where Mr. O’Toole’s own party could make life difficult for him.

There are plenty of openings to attack the Trudeau government: the molasses-like vaccination rollout, last year’s egregious WE scandal, the cynical prorogation of Parliament and silencing of the committees looking into the WE scandal, the illogical new gun legislation introduced this month, and the dangerously delayed and then bungled effort to screen and quarantine international travels, to name the highlights.

But if Mr. O’Toole wants to lead his party to victory, he will have do to more than hammer away at the Liberals’ failings. He will need to present ideas of his own, including those that can appeal to voters in Montreal and the Greater Toronto Area, two vote-rich places where his party was nearly shut out in the 2019 election, and where voters may not share the same concerns and complaints as the Conservatives’ more rural and Western base.

From the current looks of it, that won’t be easy. Mr. O’Toole has tried reaching out to broaden the base but, when he does, he gets resistance from his own caucus.

It’s partly his own fault. Campaigning for the party leadership, Mr. O’Toole portrayed himself as a tax-cutting “true blue” Conservative – he loudly opposed the federal carbon tax – who would “Take Back Canada.”

After becoming Leader, he also started going after “bad trade deals” and “corporate and financial elites, who are happy to outsource jobs abroad.” His sound bites were light on content, but the language was more than a little Trumpian.

Then, in January, after the attempted insurrection by supporters of Donald Trump at the U.S. Capitol, Mr. O’Toole hurriedly released a statement saying there is “no place for the far right” in his party. He positioned the Conservatives as “a moderate, pragmatic, mainstream party” that welcomes “all Canadians, regardless of race, religion, economic standing, education, or sexual orientation.”

That’s not something the Leader of Canada’s government-in-waiting should ever have to say. But Mr. O’Toole is under pressure from some Conservative MPs to support viewpoints, many imported from the United States, that appeal to their voters, and with which he himself has flirted.

The result can be seen in the latest polls. Liberal support is dropping, but so is support for the Conservatives. Liberal failures aren’t benefiting the Tories. Too many Canadians do not see them as their alternative.

Mr. O’Toole is today caught between a rock – the Liberals’ electoral machinations – and the hardening of his party’s base. One of them has to give way for the Conservatives to succeed, and it’s not going to be the Liberals.

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