Andrew Scheer didn’t get this far. Now Erin O’Toole faces the long cold winter of a losing Conservative leader.
Making sure that the many Tory MPs who are still ambivalent about his leadership don’t turn cold on him in the next few months will be key to his survival.
Already he has seen a handful of current and former officials try to kick-start moves to have an early vote on his leadership – he booted Conservative Senator Denise Batters from the party’s caucus, but Tory senators chose to keep her in their group, anyway.
Now, Conservative MPs are heading back to their ridings, back to constituents and party members and holiday cheer, and Mr. O’Toole doesn’t know how much of their conversations will be grumbling about the state of the party and the Leader. A recent Angus Reid survey indicated his popularity has fallen among Conservative Party supporters. Mr. O’Toole doesn’t know how many of his MPs will come back to the Commons on Jan. 25 thinking his days should be numbered.
Mr. Scheer chose not to wait out the winter two years ago, quitting just before the Christmas break. He had tried to stay on after losing the 2019 election, but faced mounting criticism and leaks – he quit as reports emerged that the party had paid for his children’s private school. Mr. Scheer, at least, avoided a long winter of guerilla attacks on his leadership, and a death by a thousand cuts.
But Mr. O’Toole’s might just tough out the barbs from the grassroots. It is his caucus of MPs who will control his fate.
In theory, he doesn’t face a leadership review vote until 2023. And it is already clear that Mr. O’Toole controls enough votes on the Conservative Party’s national council to knock back attempts to speed that up. The council kicked out one dissident councillor, Bert Chen, and declared invalid Ms. Batters’ petition to force an early leadership review, suggesting they will shut down any leadership challenge.
The anti-O’Toole forces say they will keep fighting, but as long as the national council shields Mr. O’Toole, it is really only the caucus that could press him enough to force him out.
So Mr. O’Toole’s winter mission is to work the MPs to make sure they don’t go over the fence.
There are certainly Conservative MPs who are already on the other side. Alberta MP Shannon Stubbs complained, but she is in limbo, too: Mr. O’Toole has called for an investigation into allegations by former staffers that she was an abusive boss. Alberta MP Chris Warkentin criticized Mr. O’Toole’s performance. He, as with Ms. Stubbs and Ms. Batters, is part of a group who were close to Mr. Scheer who are critical of Mr. O’Toole. A handful of others are, too.
Yet Mr. O’Toole’s hard-core opponents are said to be a relatively small minority of MPs – perhaps 15. The problem is that his hard-core supporters are a small minority, too. Most of the other MPs are varying shades of ambivalent grey, not seeking Mr. O’Toole’s ouster, but not certain backers.
And the Conservative caucus seems to be feeling its own strength – showing its independence from Mr. O’Toole, but not just to oppose him.
Tory MPs picked as their caucus chair MP Scott Reid, a former Reform Party adviser and believer in caucus democracy who can be expected to be a stickler for the rules, over Ontario MP Michael Barrett, who is seen as close to Mr. O’Toole.
Mr. O’Toole was unable to impose a clear-cut vaccination policy on his MPs. But they did join together to speed a bill banning conversion therapy through the House of Commons – a tactical success that involved some peer pressure to convince holdout MPs that fighting such a bill again would only help the Liberals embarrass the Tories.
And just before parliamentarians headed to their ridings, some MPs complained that Mr. O’Toole must be more critical of Quebec’s Bill 21, which bars some public servants from wearing religious symbols – that would put Mr. O’Toole into conflict with powerful Quebec Premier François Legault. The Tory Leader reportedly called on MPs to air their criticisms privately inside caucus, or not at all.
In the end, that’s where the battle is for Mr. O’Toole. If he can keep MPs from complaining in public, fuelling questions about his leadership, he might just be able to hold on till the potential of revolt is over. But he will have to get through a long winter where he has to work to keep them onside.
Editor’s note: This version has been updated to correct what province one MP is from.
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