Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole steered his party back toward the ideological centre of Canadian politics in 2021 and made this shift a key selling point during the five-week election campaign.
But it was not enough to win Canada’s 44th general election as Justin Trudeau’s Liberals will form the next government.
While Mr. O’Toole’s restyling of the Conservatives resulted in few gains, with projections of only a handful of extra seats at most, his party did hold Mr. Trudeau’s Liberals to another minority government.
Mr. O’Toole, speaking to Conservative supporters early Tuesday morning following the election results, signaled he wants to lead his party for a second election campaign.
He told supporters he was “resolutely committed to continuing this journey for Canada.”
He accused Mr. Trudeau of triggering the election to get a majority in what he called a “power grab” and predicted the Liberal Leader will try again soon.
“If he thinks he can threaten Canadians with another election in 18 months, the Conservative Party will be ready and whenever that day comes I will be ready to lead Canada’s Conservatives to victory,” Mr. O’Toole said.
The Conservatives gained seats in Atlantic Canada Monday night, but did not make a significant dent in Liberal fortunes in vote-rich Ontario after a race in which Mr. O’Toole had a strong start, then then ran into trouble over assault weapons and his approach to fighting COVID-19.
The party nevertheless managed to defeat three incumbent Liberal cabinet ministers. In Nova Scotia, they toppled fisheries minister Bernadette Jordan; in Peterborough, Ont., they brought down Maryam Monsef, minister for women and gender equality and rural economic development. And in the Greater Toronto Area, the Tories defeated Seniors Minister Deb Schulte.
Mr. O’Toole cast himself as a 21st-century conservative, calling himself pro-choice and an ally to the LGBTQ+ community. He promised to put a price on carbon as part of the fight against climate change – an idea that has previously been opposed by Conservatives – and remained open to the possibility of provinces and territories keeping the Liberal carbon tax if Conservatives were to form government.
He even reversed course during the campaign on assault weapons, saying he would uphold a ban on these firearms enacted by the Liberals in May, 2020, after blowback to a platform promise to repeal the ban.
As Liberal pundit David Herle observed during the race, Mr. O’Toole ran the first federal Progressive Conservative-style campaign in more than 20 years, since former PC leader Joe Clark in 2000.
Just days before the election, Mr. O’Toole appeared to make this official as he went even further to distance himself from predecessors Andrew Scheer and Stephen Harper. He brought former Progressive Conservative prime minister Brian Mulroney to a campaign rally and received his endorsement. Mr. Harper was a member of the Reform Party that helped bring down the Progressive Conservatives and created a political party that eventually merged with – and subsumed – the PCs.
“My priority has been to build a Conservative movement where every Canadian can feel at home. Inclusive, diverse, forward-looking, progressive, worker-friendly,” Mr. O’Toole said alongside Mr. Mulroney at a campaign stop in Saguenay, Que., last week.
“We’re not your dad’s Conservative Party any more.”
As Canadians voted Monday, it remained to be seen if these ideological changes will become a durable feature of the Conservative Party going forward or will remain up for debate as the party regroups after an election defeat.
Scott Reid, a former communications director for Liberal prime minister Paul Martin, said Mr. O’Toole’s Conservatives came out of the gate strong during the campaign but struggled with the pandemic response. “They had a great first act,” he said. Two factors that will be debated in the days that follow are the Conservative Party’s unwillingness to require COVID vaccination for all its candidates and the failure of fellow Conservative Jason Kenney as Premier of Alberta to contain the pandemic in his province. “They made a gigantic gamble they could compete in an election campaign during the fourth wave and be able to make it about something other than the pandemic and that turned out to be wrong.”
Former Conservative cabinet minister Lisa Raitt said Mr. O’Toole ran a successful campaign, coming from behind at the start to run a closer race than first expected. “He provided a positive leader for people to go to the doors with. So you weren’t getting these reports coming of ‘Oh, Harper is so scary or Scheer is so scary.’ Erin wasn’t scary.”
But the challenge ahead is opposition within the party to changes Mr. O’Toole has enacted.
The right-wing People’s Party of Canada, for instance, threatened to bleed off support from the Conservative Party in this election. PPC Leader Maxime Bernier, who came second in the 2017 campaign for the Conservative leadership, left the Tories after accusing them of abandoning their “core conservative principles.”
Duane Bratt, a political science professor at Mount Royal University in Calgary, said Mr. O’Toole’s problem is there is opposition within his party to some of his policy shifts. “If he does not win, or at least pull it close, do we see that dissension boil over afterward?”
Mr. O’Toole, who won the leadership just more than a year ago, in August, 2020, faced an uphill battle in connecting with Canadians, running against Mr. Trudeau, prime minister for nearly six years and the son of Pierre Trudeau who had grown up in the public spotlight.
The Conservatives spent the last weekend of the campaign largely on offence, travelling into six Southern Ontario ridings – three whose incumbents are cabinet ministers.
The Tories had been seeking to expand their base. Under former Conservative leader Andrew Scheer, the party won 34 per cent of the vote in the 2019 election compared with 33 per cent for the Liberals. However, they won fewer seats: 121 seats compared with 157 for the Liberals.
Mr. O’Toole acknowledged shortcomings in various areas including a credible environmental policy, outreach to cultural communities and engaging with unions and working Canadians. Also, he has played down the party’s social-conservative aspects, touting his pro-choice beliefs and pledging to act on issues of interest to the LGBTQ+ community.
He campaigned as “the Man With The Plan” – a line of text on the cover of Canada’s Recovery Plan, the party platform he carried into stump speeches across the country, and waved about as proof of his commitment to change.
He committed to eliminating the deficit, but said it would take a decade, and has said he would maintain current federal spending commitments for public programs in 2021-22. That means standing by the first year of the $30-billion child-care program enacted by the Liberals, and negotiated to agreements with eight provinces.
Ian Brodie, who served as chief of staff to Mr. Harper and is now a political scientist at the University of Calgary, described a complicated dynamic for the Conservatives.
“The Conservative coalition remains tricky,” he said in an e-mail. “COVID has radicalized the libertarian and anti-establishment wing making it harder to connect them to the mainstream of society.
“Fiscal issues are creeping back given the federal government’s unsustainable finances. And as baby boomers age, they are becoming more risk averse and far more dependent on government, to the advantage of the liberals. While younger voters are woke-r than the party really wants to be.”
With a report from Kristy Kirkup in Montreal