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The two major contenders, Peter MacKay, seen here on Feb. 8, 2020, and Erin O’Toole, haven’t said much about Derek Sloan's video so far. But it is a leadership issue, whether they like it or not.Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press

You might think that when the Conservative leadership race emerged from the coronavirus lockdown suspension, they’d be facing an entirely new, postpandemic politics.

But even though they’ve now set a new finish line at Aug. 21, they’re still struggling with the same kind of thing that was dogging them before the world changed, back in March.

That is, how far do they go in policing their own fringes? Do they denounce the kind of politics they don’t want in their party or even shut it down – or do they claim that doing so is a Liberal thing?

Derek Sloan, an Eastern Ontario MP and the fringiest of the four confirmed leadership candidates, made that the first big issue of the leadership campaign by asking in a campaign video if Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer Theresa Tam is loyal to Canada or China.

Since Mr. Sloan declined to apologize – instead issuing a disingenuous statement trying to duck responsibility – the Conservative caucus is about to mull whether to kick him out.

The two major contenders, Peter MacKay and Erin O’Toole, haven’t said much about it so far. But it is a leadership issue, whether they like it or not.

The way they deal with it is a symbol of what kind of politics the Conservatives embrace. That’s always the case for party leaders.

This not a question of whether Mr. Sloan had the right to say what he did, however misguided. There isn’t a libel suit before the courts. And Mr. Sloan is a democratically elected representative who has a right to sit in Parliament.

It is a question of what Conservatives decide is within the realm of acceptable discourse for their party.

There is a 100-per-cent certainty there will be some kind of decision on that eventually. The next Conservative leader absolutely will not take the view that MPs can say anything no matter how out of line, without criticism or consequence.

And if the Conservatives and their leadership contestants get caught up in this for days or weeks, it’s going to look like the Tories haven’t caught up to the new world of pandemics, $250-billion deficits, economic nationalism and the unanswered questions about what comes next. Big questions.

The Conservative leadership race was suspended March 26, or sort of. The party told leadership campaigns they must stop fundraising. Locked-down candidates couldn’t travel. They did Zoom meetings, but still, the crisis disrupted the leadership campaign rhythm. Mr. O’Toole had planned to release a policy platform, but didn’t. Presumably, he’d have to update it now by doing more than just scratching out a reference to $30-billion deficits and writing in $250-billion.

But the new world isn’t the first thing on the agenda. Instead it is more disputes about how far is too far.

The race was frozen in March just after the party excluded Jim Karahalios from the leadership race. He is suing to be let back in. The party didn’t say precisely why Mr. Karahalios was booted, but he was gone after he sent out a campaign missive aimed at Mr. O’Toole’s campaign manager, Walied Soliman, who is Muslim. “Say NO to Sharia law. Stop Erin O’Toole,” it read.

At the time, Mr. O’Toole said there was no place for intolerance in the party. When Mr. Sloan accused Dr. Tam of disloyalty, Mr. O’Toole issued a statement saying he shared the frustration with the crisis response of officials but “would not impugn their motives."

Mr. Sloan insisted in a statement this week that he wasn’t making a reference to race when he asked if Chinese-Canadian Dr. Tam was working for China. Certainly, you’d think he’d realize the long history of accusing immigrants of dual loyalties.

At any rate, his explanation that he questioned Dr. Tam’s judgment – in relying on World Health Organization data from China – and not her loyalty was simply not true.

For the leadership contenders, there’s a political culture war to consider. Big parts of the Conservative base, including many social conservatives, already feel their views are marginalized by Liberals – so Mr. O’Toole is campaigning heavily against “cancel culture” and Mr. Sloan’s campaign slogan is “Conservative Without Apology." There’s a suggestion that castigating a Conservative for going too far is what Liberals do – and in a way, the Conservatives fail to define themselves.

In the meantime, these things keep coming back, when everything else has changed.

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