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opinion

It’s official. The Conservative caucus has lost confidence in Erin O’Toole as leader. A party riven by regional and ideological factions will now search for someone who can unite them. Good luck with that.

The Conservative Party has entered a dark time, reminiscent of the 1930s and forties, when the Tories chose one leader after another, following one election disaster with another. There is a reason why you have likely never heard of Robert Manion or R.B. Hanson or John Bracken. They were failed leaders of a failed party.

Now the party has entered a similar period of agony, as it flirts with the kind of schisms that divided the conservative movement in the 1990s, ensuring back-to-back-to-back Liberal majorities.

Much now depends on the next moves of Carleton MP Pierre Poilievre. For many in caucus, he is the natural, even inevitable, replacement as leader, a popular populist who could channel mounting discontent over Justin Trudeau’s government.

Others believe his strident and sometimes extreme rhetoric – “Justin Trudeau’s vaccine vendetta” – renders him unelectable.

We don’t even know for sure whether he wants the job. Mr. Poilievre was expected to run in the 2020 leadership campaign but chose not to.

Mr. O’Toole had planned to run in 2020 as a moderate alternative to Mr. Poilievre. When Mr. Poilievre bowed out, Mr. O’Toole recast himself as a conservative alternative to Peter MacKay. That tactical flexibility helped him win the leadership then and lose it Wednesday.

For Mr. Poilievre, much now rests on the trucks clogging Ottawa’s downtown. He has called the protesters “bright, joyful & peaceful Canadians championing freedom over fear,” whom “the media and Trudeau want to silence.”

But those trucks have forced hundreds of shops and services to close, driven residents inside for fear of harassment and seemingly paralyzed the ability of the city and police to respond. This is no longer a protest – it’s an occupation.

How that occupation ends could influence how the public views the Conservative Party in general and Mr. Poilievre in particular.

The other pressing question is who might run against Mr. Poilievre. Ontario Premier Doug Ford has proven he can win over voters in suburban Ontario ridings. But he doesn’t speak French and insisted Tuesday he doesn’t want the job.

Haldimand-Norfolk MP Leslyn Lewis will almost certainly run for a second time, backed to the hilt by social conservatives. Other names being floated include Brampton Mayor Patrick Brown, former interim leader Rona Ambrose and Mr. MacKay, again, though the answer for most or all of those three is probably no.

It has been said that the most difficult job in this county is Leader of the Conservative Party of Canada in opposition. With Mr. O’Toole now ousted, like Andrew Scheer before him, and with the party divided between populists and establishment, Ontario and the West, social conservatives and moderates, the job is particularly unattractive.

Meanwhile People’s Party Leader Maxime Bernier taunts his former colleagues from the sidelines, hoping to pick up support from disaffected Tories. He is bound to profit from the Conservatives’ misery.

All of this comes at a time when the Liberal Party is unpopular with most voters. 338canada.com, a compendium of polls, shows the Liberals and Conservatives both languishing, supported by a third of voters or less.

The Angus Reid Institute reports that its polling shows “a population largely fatigued, frustrated and anxious – and one in three (36 per cent) Canadians saying they are struggling with their mental health.” (Online survey Jan. 18-20 of 1,509 adults who are members of Angus Reid Forum, with a comparative margin of error of 2.5 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.)

“Two-plus years of the pandemic have Canadians dealing with their own anxieties, exhaustion and uncertainties,” Angus Reid president Shachi Kurl told me. “The brief pan-political unity we saw at the beginning of the pandemic has given way to division.”

An effective centre-right opposition party should be pushing this government on seemingly arbitrary border controls, shortages of materials past and present, the size of the deficit, persistent inflation, soaring housing prices and the prospect of rising interest rates.

Conservatives do press these and other issues, but the political class ignores all that, focusing instead on internal divisions. Those divisions have never been more prominently, even viciously, on display than on Wednesday, when a caucus openly disavowed its own leader.

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