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Erin O’Toole is casting himself well to the right of Peter MacKay, while also emphasizing his commitment to protecting LGBTQ and women’s rights.

Sean Kilpatrick/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Erin O’Toole’s bid for the Conservative leadership received a huge boost, Thursday, when Jason Kenney endorsed his campaign, while obliquely criticizing Mr. O’Toole’s principal opponent, Peter MacKay.

Mr. MacKay, as leader of the former Progressive Conservatives and minister of foreign affairs, defence and justice in the Harper government, is well known to both party and country; there is a bit of juggernaut feel to his machine.

But Mr. Kenney is a leading voice within the conservative movement. And in his message to party members, he made it clear that he was more impressed with Mr. O’Toole than with Mr. MacKay. The gist was all there in one sentence (I have added the paragraphed letters.):

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The Conservative Party, wrote Mr. Kenney, needs “a leader (a) who will unite our party, (b) who speaks French, (c) who can win in suburban Ontario, and (d) who will fight for a fair deal for Western Canada.”

(a) Mr. MacKay hails from the Red Tory wing of the party. Margaret Thatcher would have called him “a wet.” Blue Conservatives like Mr. Kenney would have trouble with Mr. MacKay as leader, risking party unity.

Mr. O’Toole is casting himself well to the right of Mr. MacKay, while also emphasizing his commitment to protecting LGBTQ and women’s rights. Mr. Kenney clearly believes this is the best approach to hold the Conservative coalition together.

(b) Mr. Kenney, who is fluently bilingual, is much more confident in Mr. O’Toole’s command of French than of Mr. MacKay’s.

(c) Mr. O’Toole’s riding is in the 905, the all-important band of seats surrounding Toronto. Mr. MacKay’s old riding was in rural Nova Scotia.

(d) Mr. O’Toole, better than Mr. MacKay, understands the aspirations and grievances of Conservatives in Western Canada – a crucial endorsement from a leading Western Conservative, when there is no major candidate from the West.

Victory comes to Conservatives when they win suburban Ontario and the West. The Premier of Alberta is telling Conservatives that Mr. O’Toole is better equipped to forge that coalition.

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The Kenney endorsement overshadowed another important development. Earlier in the day the O’Toole campaign released a preview of its policy platform that contains a powerful, if highly controversial, proposal.

Under Prime Minister O’Toole, for the first time ever, the federal government would invoke the Constitution’s notwithstanding clause. The purpose would be to overrule the Supreme Court, which struck down mandatory minimum sentences that the Harper government had imposed for certain serious crimes.

“I don’t think the notwithstanding clause is some third rail that can never be touched,” Mr. O’Toole said Thursday in a phone interview, before Mr. Kenney released his statement. “It should be used sparingly and appropriately” to assert the supremacy of Parliament.

From a Conservative perspective, Liberals respond to gun violence by further limiting the legitimate rights of gun owners. Conservatives favour tougher mandatory sentences for gun-related crimes. If the courts say that approach is unconstitutional, Mr. O’Toole thinks that’s what the notwithstanding clause is there for.

This latest announcement comes on top of previous O’Toole commitments to kill off CBC English-language television and its digital news service, and to toughen the law around blockading critical infrastructure.

Prior to the race, Mr. O’Toole was viewed by those inside the Ottawa bubble as a likable moderate. So there is some surprise that he is running such a strongly conservative campaign.

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Mr. O’Toole says he has been consistent. “Is there more urgency, is there more passion" than when he ran for the leadership in 2017? “Absolutely.”

But he was always true blue, Mr. O’Toole insists. He sees no contradiction in being strongly conservative on law-and-order issues while supporting LGBTQ rights and the rights of women.

The Durham MP argues that Canadians have lost faith in governments, as separatist sentiment rises in the West, asylum claimants cross the border from the United States into Canada unimpeded and protesters hold the government and economy hostage through illegal blockades.

Peter MacKay is running the classic front-runners campaign of saying little of substance, while counting on his name and his machine to deliver the vote. Erin O’Toole is trying to upset that juggernaut. And now a very powerful force within the party has offered his support. This could get interesting.

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