It was an odd thing to hear Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole warning in his wee-hours election-night speech that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau wants to trigger another election in 18 months.
One thing that is clear after Monday’s elections is that Mr. Trudeau won’t dare talk about elections for a long time. Another is that Mr. O’Toole absolutely has to talk about elections.
The Conservative Leader went from an election campaign to a campaign to keep his leadership without a pause for breath. There was barely a concession in his concession speech, and there wasn’t much the day after. He was talking about the next election.
You can bet the country isn’t in the mood for that right now, but Mr. O’Toole has to play to a different room, and win his own party. Before it’s too late.
Step 1, clearly, was to raise the notion there isn’t much time – hence no time to change leaders – before another election. Step 2 is asserting he can win the second time. Step 3, as he outlined at a press conference Tuesday, was to acknowledge disappointment and launch an internal review. And hope that holds people long enough to come up with Step 4.
It is best to think of Mr. O’Toole’s entire approach to questions about his leadership as a series of points – that is, if you don’t want to be driven to distraction while he dodges questions about his leadership while repeating those points.
On Tuesday, he had a short list of them. Point 1, we’re all disappointed. Point 2, we made some gains but fell short elsewhere. Point 3, we were close in about 30 ridings. Point 4, I’ve ordered a review of what went well and what went wrong. Point 5, I’ve launched the steps to improve and we will win next time.
The thing is, Mr. O’Toole has some arguments that his leadership wasn’t the whole problem in this election campaign. The party has struggled in three elections, not one, and in similar ways. But the robotic repetition of those process points won’t build confidence among Conservatives.
Point 1, after all, is a given. Point 2 usually applies to mediocre results. Point 3 is lamenting you only needed more votes in a bunch of seats to do better. Point 4 is pure process. And Point 5 suggests the Conservative Party should be reassured by points 1 to 4.
That’s not a great start to his leadership defence.
There is already some pretty ruthless leadership math being done by at least some Conservatives: Former leader Andrew Scheer was booted because his election results were deemed a failure, Mr. O’Toole’s were no better, in fact a little worse, ergo Mr. O’Toole should be axed, too.
Maybe things are more complicated. Maybe both Mr. Scheer and Mr. O’Toole failed to breakthrough in the Toronto-area’s 905 region, and don’t forget Quebec, because of more structural Tory problems. Was Mr. O’Toole’s attempt to move the party to appeal to a broader pool of voters, or the so-called political centre, the reason the People’s Party took 5 per cent of the vote? Or was that more because of anger about lockdowns and vaccine mandates?
As for the Leader’s performance, he ran half a good campaign. He could argue that Stephen Harper also did that in 2004. But his party should also be concerned that he spent days repeating talking points about guns, and losing ground, and then changed policy.
But then Conservatives won’t only judge him on how he represented Conservatives, and some already feel that he didn’t. He was a moderate Tory who won the leadership as a True Blue Conservative and spoke to the country as a progressive Conservative – too close to the Liberals for some in his base – and that already had some in his party angry.
All that is bubbling up for Mr. O’Toole even before the rank-and-file of his party has had much chance to think about who else might lead. MP Pierre Poilievre, who balked at a leadership bid on 2020, is a name often mentioned, but the party has already chewed through a lot of hopefuls in two leadership races in 2017 and 2020. Yet Mr. O’Toole knew that once the results were in, he had to leap to the defence of his job. If he wants to keep it, he can’t stop talking about the next election.
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