Conservative Senator Denise Batters launched a petition calling on party members to support a review of Erin O’Toole’s leadership in a move that is expected to be the opening salvo of a protracted internal battle.
Several Conservatives will speak out against Mr. O’Toole’s leadership in the next while, according to one Conservative MP. Another Conservative MP said they expect there will be continuing internal pressure on Mr. O’Toole to step down.
The Globe and Mail is not identifying the MPs so that they can speak openly about internal party matters. One of the two MPs said the co-ordinated campaign will continue over the coming months until either a leadership review is expedited via a vote by party members or Mr. O’Toole is removed as leader.
The party is having a closed-door caucus meeting on Wednesday.
In a video posted online Monday, Ms. Batters took aim at Mr. O’Toole’s leadership style and said he is perceived as untrustworthy. She blamed him for the party’s loss in the federal election.
“On behalf of Conservative activists and members from coast to coast, we started this petition because we don’t want to see this party ripped apart again,” she said.
The Conservative Party responded with a letter Monday dismissing the senator’s request for a leadership review. “The question you are proposing to ask in a referendum does not adhere to the Constitution of the Conservative Party of Canada,” states a letter signed by party president Robert Batherson, which says the petition is “not in order.”
Ms. Batters said in her video that when the Conservative Party is divided, the Liberals win, and that under Mr. O’Toole’s leadership “the rift in our party is growing.”
“As leader, Mr. O’Toole has watered down and even entirely reversed our policy positions without the input of party or caucus members. On carbon tax, on guns, on conscience rights – he flip-flopped on our policies within the same week, the same day, and even within the same sentence,” she said.
Ms. Batters’s comments represent an escalation of dissatisfaction among segments of Mr. O’Toole’s caucus of MPs and senators. In her remarks, she alleges that Conservatives have several concerns with Mr. O’Toole, including a lack of clarity on key policy issues and a sense that he is taking the party away from conservative principles in an effort to court Liberal voters.
Several senior Conservative MPs issued statements of their own Monday defending Mr. O’Toole’s leadership and distancing themselves from Ms. Batters’s comments.
Conservative MP Michelle Rempel Garner posted a video on Facebook, calling it an open message to Ms. Batters, and saying she is frustrated.
“We can have differences internally in caucus, we can have vigorous policy debates ... but this open warfare that’s happening right now, the Liberals are popping Champagne to you,” she said. She asked Ms. Batters to withdraw her petition, and “have it out in caucus.”
Similar public statements of support for Mr. O’Toole were expressed Monday by Conservative MP Alain Rayes, who Mr. O’Toole named last week as his Quebec lieutenant, as well as MPs Randy Hoback and Bob Zimmer.
Mr. O’Toole won the Conservative leadership in 2020 – after finishing third in the 2017 race that selected Andrew Scheer.
Garry Keller, who has held several senior roles with the Conservative Party, criticized the public signs of party disunity. He said Liberals in the Prime Minister’s Office are likely “dying with laughter” at the infighting.
“I find it highly ironic that an unelected senator – that bastion of democracy – is the front person for this campaign, which tells me that anyone who might be behind this in the caucus is either too scared or doesn’t have the guts to put their name to it up-front,” said Mr. Keller, who is now a consultant with the StrategyCorp advisory firm.
He said the dissent within caucus is largely driven by MPs who felt Mr. O’Toole’s campaign platform wasn’t “right-wing enough” on issues such as climate change and that policies were announced without properly consulting MPs. He also said that Ms. Batters is close with Mr. Scheer, and that some MPs question why Mr. Scheer was pushed out of the leadership position after failing to win the federal election in 2019 yet Mr. O’Toole is determined to remain in the job.
“There is a group within caucus who are obviously supporters of Andrew Scheer and who have taken the position that Andrew Scheer got a raw deal,” Mr. Keller said. “But that is a very different case, in my opinion.”
Conservative strategist and chairman of Summa Strategies Tim Powers said whenever there is leadership drama and it plays out in public, it benefits political opponents, saying: “Conservatives seem to have a really hard time learning this.”
He said Mr. O’Toole is likely anxious to have Parliament be in session so MPs can focus on the Liberals instead of on themselves.
Ms. Batters told The Globe and Mail in an interview that many in caucus do support her petition and she will leave it to them to express it publicly.
“I think that many will come out and be vocally supportive,” she said, adding that part of the reason she took the step of launching the petition is because among MPs “there’s a fair bit of fear of potential repercussions or retribution from leadership.”
Ms. Batters’s comments come less than a week after Mr. O’Toole unveiled his updated list of senior critics – or shadow cabinet – in which individuals who had publicly questioned the party’s positions on issues such as mandatory vaccination were left out.
The list of senior critics excluded rookie MP Leslyn Lewis, who comes from the party’s socially conservative wing and who finished third in the party’s 2020 leadership race.
Ms. Lewis had made public statements last month in defence of those who decline to reveal their COVID-19 vaccination status.
Ms. Batters’s video also took aim at Mr. O’Toole’s leadership campaign, saying he won claiming to be “true blue” – “but ran an election campaign nearly indistinguishable from Trudeau’s Liberals.”
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