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Conservative leader Erin O'Toole holds a press conference on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on March 2, 2021.

Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

Anyone involved in Canadian politics knows that being leader of the Official Opposition is hard, and that growing the fractious Conservative coalition is even harder. That doesn’t change the fact that Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole needs to do a better job.

Justin Trudeau’s Liberals are vulnerable. Canada’s performance in acquiring vaccines has been mediocre at best. The government’s unseemly attempt to slide a lucrative contract over to WE Charity last year cost the former finance minister his job and destroyed the charity.

And now, a government that loudly proclaims its commitment to advancing the rights of women faces allegations that it ignored possible sexual misconduct by the former chief of the defence staff.

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Despite this, the Conservatives have failed to attract more than the one voter in three who traditionally supports the party, and may even be losing support. The party has no coherent position on the issues that matter most: helping the economy to recover while controlling the deficit and acting credibly to reduce carbon emissions.

Based on numerous conversations, morale inside the party appears to be low; no one seems to know where the party is going or what it stands for. Social conservatives, angry at what they consider Mr. O’Toole’s betrayal of their values, are seeking to place supporters of their cause on National Council at the party’s policy convention later this month. If they succeed, count on the Liberals to proclaim: “Erin O’Toole has surrounded himself with anti-abortion extremists.”

As politicians like to say, let’s be clear: People who oppose abortion or who believe marriage can only be between a man and a woman can be part of the conservative coalition, provided they understand that they may not impose these views, which most of us, including most conservatives, don’t share.

People who believe that private-sector innovation is the best way to bend the curve on global warming can be part of the conservative coalition, provided they understand the state must also play a role.

And people who believe that government should be as small as practically possible and that each individual should be free and responsible for the life they live belong at the very heart of the conservative coalition, provided they understand that inequality and racism hold some people back.

Mr. O’Toole is a socially moderate fiscal conservative. But he must surely understand that, in courting the social conservative vote during the leadership campaign, only to pivot to the centre as soon as he’d won, he upset a lot of so-cons and left others confused.

On the major issues, he talks about the need to manage the economic recovery more effectively, without saying how. He insists Conservatives must make environmental issues a priority, but has offered no plan to address global warming.

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Last month, Mr. O’Toole told me in an interview that he would earn the support of suburban, middle-class voters who decide elections “because I’m one of them, and Mr. Trudeau has never experienced one minute of their lives.” That is an interesting sentiment, but what does it mean?

He is in danger of falling into the same trap that ended Andrew Scheer’s leadership: trying to hold onto the base while appealing to persuadable voters by talking about his suburban roots, avoiding clear stands on difficult issues, and trashing the Liberals when they don’t deserve it as well as when they do. It left Mr. Scheer appearing weak and evasive and mean. Mr. O’Toole is halfway there.

In that interview, the leader raised some interesting possibilities: refocusing carbon taxes away from individuals and toward heavy emitters; redefining trading relationships to focus on like-minded countries -- “free trade amongst free countries that follow the rules” is how he put it -- and promoting closer continental alignment with the United States. It’s time to flesh that out.

On immigration, he could support high levels of intake while arguing for fewer from the family class and more from the economic class. The leader has already done a good job of branding the Conservatives as more aggressive than the Liberals in their approach to China. And if voters turn from fear of COVID-19 to concern over how governments will manage the economic recovery, then the Conservatives should be well positioned to address those concerns.

Erin O’Toole needs to convince us he is prime minister-in-waiting. Maybe he also needs to convince himself.

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