An internal review of the Conservatives’ 2021 election campaign says leader Erin O’Toole came across as over-coached and needs to be more assertive. The report also urges the party to review its team of senior advisers, reduce infighting and do a better job of reaching out to racialized communities, sources say.
The campaign post-mortem, which included a review of Mr. O’Toole’s performance, was the work of former Conservative MP James Cumming. Mr. Cumming briefed the national Conservative caucus Thursday on his findings during a closed-door meeting. He was joined by former Conservative cabinet minister Christian Paradis, who assisted with the review.
Mr. O’Toole’s future as leader has been uncertain since the party’s election loss last year. He took on the Conservatives’ top job less than two years ago, and has vowed to stay on through the next election. But some elements of the party are pushing for an early review of his leadership, and senior members of caucus are increasingly taking public positions that are at odds with his.
For instance, Mr. O’Toole had appeared reluctant to champion a convoy of truckers who are planning to hold a large anti-vaccine-mandate protest in Ottawa this weekend, even as some Conservative MPs forcefully expressed support for the cause.
At a news conference Thursday evening, Mr. O’Toole voiced stronger support for the truckers’ convoy than he had earlier in the week. He said he intends to meet with some of the protesters away from Parliament Hill. He also addressed the Cumming report and vowed to implement changes.
“I want to make sure that we gain the confidence of more Canadians, so I will make changes myself, to our team, to our strategy and within our party. And our MPs and our entire party structure will be part of that,” he said.
“There were areas I fell short, including especially in the last 10 days [of the campaign]. There were areas where our policy, our tour, other things fell short,” he said. “We have to build trust, particularly with cultural groups.”
Mr. O’Toole said the party will develop “a set of plans” in response to the report, which was not made public. Few Conservative MPs stopped to speak with reporters after being briefed on the review.
The Globe and Mail has not viewed a copy of the full report from Mr. Cumming, but several Conservative sources with direct knowledge of the briefing to caucus provided summaries of the key findings.
The report says the key issues during the campaign were the party’s changing position on gun control, as well as a lack of clarity on whether the party supported vaccine mandates and whether all its candidates were vaccinated, the sources said. The Globe is not naming them because they were not authorized to disclose the internal discussions.
One source said the election post-mortem characterizes Mr. O’Toole’s struggle to manage the guns and vaccines questions during the campaign as a problem of issues management, rather than as a problem with the leader himself.
The report says the Conservative leader should review his senior campaign team before the next election and make sure there are clear plans for his top advisers, according to sources. Now that Mr. O’Toole is leader of the official opposition, some of those people are in top jobs in his office.
Mr. Cumming’s report also recommends that the party improve its election readiness by modernizing its voter identification and voter contact practices, and by changing its nomination rules, the sources said. Some of the sources expressed worry that the changes would open to the door to the party appointing candidates, rather than requiring them to compete for nominations.
Sources said the report calls on the party to recruit more diverse candidates and address past policies that generated accusations of racism if it hopes to improve on last year’s election results and make gains in Canada’s largest cities.
According to one source, the report notes that more than six years after the Stephen Harper-led Conservative government adopted and then campaigned unsuccessfully on legislation banning “barbaric cultural practices,” the since-reversed law continues to cause problems for Tory candidates and the party’s brand.
The law amended the Criminal Code to ban forced marriages and changed immigration laws to add polygamy as grounds for blocking admission to Canada. Critics of the bill said its political messaging unfairly tarnished racialized communities.
In the 2015 election campaign, the party promised to set up an RCMP tip line for people to use to report barbaric practices. It also said it would consider banning public servants from wearing the niqab – another proposal that continues to cause problems for the Tories, according to the source’s summary of the report.
The Cumming report also finds a disconcerting loss of party support among Chinese-Canadians. According to the source, the party’s messaging failed to distinguish between criticism of the Chinese Communist Party and China broadly as a country, ultimately alienating some Canadians who felt the party had become anti-Chinese.
The source said the report expresses concerns regarding potential foreign interference in the Chinese-Canadian community. Rather than a change in party policy, the source said, the report recommends greater efforts to push back against online misinformation, including on WeChat, a Chinese social media platform.
All members of the Conservative caucus were invited to provide their feedback to Mr. Cumming as part of the review.
Mr. Cumming said in a Thursday interview with CTV’s Power Play that he interviewed close to 400 party insiders for the review and found broad support for Mr. O’Toole’s performance.
“For the large majority, they were supportive of how Erin performed within the campaign, although not entirely happy with the result,” he said. Mr. Cumming also addressed concerns that infighting is hurting the party.
“I think the message should be, for those who want to battle internally, that serves no one but the opposition, the parties that we’re running against,” he said.
The report arrives at a time of increasingly public divisions within the Conservative caucus over Mr. O’Toole’s leadership.
Last week, Tory MPs from Saskatchewan decided to confirm Senator Denise Batters as a member of their regional caucus, even though Mr. O’Toole kicked her out of the national caucus in November for launching a petition that challenged his leadership.
This week, Ms. Batters continued to promote her petition online and highlighted a Globe and Mail story about a Nanos poll showing respondents favoured Conservative MP Pierre Poilievre as leader over Mr. O’Toole.
On Thursday, the party’s Nipissing-Timiskaming riding association became the fourth to call for a leadership review to be held before this summer, rather than in 2023 as scheduled.
Also on Thursday, Mr. Poilievre denied being interested in the party leadership. He offered his support for the convoy.
“I’ll be supporting the truckers,” Mr. Poilievre, the party’s finance critic, told journalists as he arrived for the caucus retreat.
He added that, in such a large protest, there are inevitably going to be participants who say unacceptable things. “They should be individually responsible for the things they say and do, but that doesn’t mean we disparage the thousands of hardworking, law-abiding and peaceful truckers who, quite frankly, kept all of you alive for the last two years by filling your grocery shelves.”
For subscribers: Get exclusive political news and analysis by signing up for the Politics Briefing.