Politics

The Conservative Party is at odds with itself. Can O’Toole pull it together?

While the inner circle has faith in Erin O’Toole, regional and ideological schisms pose a growing threat

Picture a rolling video montage of happy, diverse Canadians, filming themselves on their phones, talking about what they love most about their country. A man puts some Alberta steaks on the grill. A recent immigrant extols the virtues of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. A woman and her daughter sing the national anthem. A guy says he enjoys the sushi in Vancouver. A little kid chimes in: “I love hockey and I love Tim Hortons.”

These were the scenes that played, on a loop, during breaks at the federal Conservatives’ virtual national convention in March. A year into the pandemic, the patriotic interludes felt surreally off-topic. They also felt emblematic of the positive, inclusive, non-controversial image today’s Conservative Party aspires to—one unshackled from the narratives of hidden social agendas, xenophobia or climate change denialism that, fair or not, hurt its chances in the past.

READ: Erin O’Toole starts to define his conservatism

Leader Erin O’Toole, who took the helm last August with a promise he would expand his party’s “big blue tent,” has seen a few setbacks in his rebranding effort. The steps he has taken to attract more centrist voters have caused pushback from his base and inspired members of his parliamentary caucus to vent their frustrations. But with so few Canadians currently displaying an appetite for politics, it’s hard to measure the potential payoff of O’Toole’s efforts.

With a federal election seemingly on the horizon, Maclean’s spoke to nearly three dozen partisans and analysts in an effort to understand the Conservative Party’s strategic ambitions and challenges. Sixteen of them—including members of Parliament, senior party officials, regional organizers, electoral district association members, and current and former Parliament Hill staffers—asked not to be named, so they could express their opinions candidly.

Their collective accounts paint a picture of a party at odds with itself. Though an inner circle that has enormous faith in Erin O’Toole is at pains to deny it, regional and ideological disconnects threaten to undermine his leadership. War room captains are confident in their calculus that a more centrist message will resonate with Canadians, and that some bleeding in Alberta (where Conservatives already enjoy wide margins) will pay dividends in the Greater Toronto Area and Quebec, where they need to make gains to turf the Liberals. But the farther away you get from that war room, the more pessimism you hear from soldiers on the ground.

For a party so focused on taking controversial issues off the table, it is having a hell of a time quelling controversy within its ranks. For a first-time leader so keen to appear in command, the knives have come out awfully quickly.

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In late September, a month into Erin O’Toole’s tenure, MPs were called into a caucus meeting and shown fresh branding for the Conservative Party of Canada. They went through the exercise of discussing the pros and cons of the new party heraldry, according to one account—then realized it hadn’t really been a consultation when, on their way out the door, staffers handed them hats already embroidered with the new logo. It wasn’t the last time MPs would have to wear O’Toole’s decisions without feeling like they’d had a say.

It is not unusual for MPs to receive talking points on a policy before having discussed it, one MP says, or for decisions to be leaked to the press before they are relayed to the caucus. Nevertheless, things hit a fever pitch after a pair of incidents this year left some MPs feeling blindsided enough to discuss their options for a coup.

The first was the January expulsion of Derek Sloan, from whose socially conservative supporters O’Toole had earned considerable down-ballot support in the leadership race he won last August. When O’Toole decided Sloan should be kicked out of caucus after a “pattern” of controversial incidents—including publicly asking if Chief Public Health Officer Theresa Tam worked “for Canada or for China”—MPs found themselves backed into a corner. Don’t remove him, and you’re challenging the new boss’s leadership to defend a problematic figure. Do remove him, and you’re antagonizing a large section of the party. They did remove him, and they did anger some—despite Sloan’s obvious issues, several social conservatives say they took his ouster as a rejection of their values.

The second incident was a bungled rollout of the party’s new environmental policy. After O’Toole promised to scrap the federal carbon tax, his endorsement of carbon pricing this spring came as a shock to almost everyone Maclean’s spoke to. The sin was the surprise, a former party official says: “If you want to get the party to have some sort of different position on climate change, it’s fine—that’s his prerogative as leader—but the way he’s doing it is just building up internal problems.”

On a Thursday morning in April, several MPs confirm they woke up to a CBC article spelling out the details of a plan they’d never heard of. That day, they spent two hours in a caucus Zoom call venting their concerns to the leader. A Toronto-based organizer who was in Ottawa remembers witnessing the backlash. “People were, pardon my French, f–king livid,” the person says. “There were people high up in the Erin O’Toole leadership campaign, that are still part of the Erin O’Toole leadership world, that didn’t have a hot friggin’ clue that this was coming down.”

It prompted some caucus members to discuss whether they should trigger a leadership review, one MP says. The conversation didn’t get far, because in a minority Parliament it is impossible to tell when an election might be called—but had there been a majority, the MP says there’d have been “enough anger out there to go down that path.” A second MP characterizes that anger as coming from the “usual guys”—people who hold safe seats and feel comfortable airing their grievances. That MP says tensions died down after a few days, and morale has since improved. In public, MPs have fallen into line.

READ: Imagine a Conservative party led by Rona Ambrose. Where would it be now?

Garnett Genuis, an Alberta MP who agreed to speak on the record, says “we’re working to bridge those divides” between MPs from different regions. He acknowledges hearing “a lot of different opinions” from constituents on the environmental plan, but signals his support. “I think a lot of people wanted to see us put forward a serious, credible environmental plan that is also compatible with having a strong energy sector.”

Sloan’s ouster and the carbon tax flip-flop factored into many grassroots Conservatives souring on O’Toole throughout the spring. Especially among social conservatives and in the West, organizers say a sense of futility is setting in. “The most committed volunteers I have ever seen to this party, and that’s financially as well as in activity, are people in the social conservative movement,” says an organizer in B.C. “If you’re leaving them feeling like ‘this isn’t my party anymore,’ it’s a problem.”

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A bigger problem may be a perception that Erin O’Toole is not long for the leadership. Several well-connected sources say they are already hearing rumblings about who could replace O’Toole after an election loss. Some of them say they are aware of an effort to organize around popular MP Pierre Poilievre. (Poilievre declined an interview.) No one Maclean’s spoke to believes O’Toole will hang on to the leadership unless he makes considerable gains.

In early February, with little explanation, O’Toole removed Poilievre from the prominent finance portfolio position and made him the jobs critic. It was widely seen as a demotion, and one organizer took it as evidence the leader was “afraid of being outshone.”

Several people with knowledge of Ottawa staffing say those who worked for Peter MacKay’s leadership campaign were explicitly shuffled out. One former Hill staffer says, “I was bluntly told that I was not needed.” A second describes being informed “in no uncertain terms” they would not be involved in the next election campaign. In March, the National Post reported allegations that MacKay himself was barred from running in the next election. Though a senior campaign source denies it, saying MacKay made his own decision, the perception, especially in Atlantic Canada, is that MacKay was sidelined. “Potential candidates just don’t think the party would have their back, with the tone that has been left with MacKay,” says one Nova Scotia organizer.

In April, the Toronto Star reported former deputy leader Lisa Raitt had been kicked out of her Milton riding association. “I certainly did not feel that anything that happened there had anything to do with Erin,” she says, adding she regularly texts with the leader. But sources say party members widely assumed otherwise, which contributed to a feeling of distrust that has been difficult to stamp out.

All of this is “rubbish,” the senior campaign source insists. Ed Fast, who supported MacKay, is the new finance critic. Patrick Tuns, who ran get-out-the-vote efforts for MacKay, has the same job for O’Toole. Steve Outhouse, who was Leslyn Lewis’s campaign manager during the leadership race, is deputy chief of staff. People who are complaining are those who “would love to have jobs and they’re not good at what they do,” the source says. Still, the same person characterizes the team that will lead Conservatives into the next election as “the same team, by and large,” that handed O’Toole his leadership victory.

Maclean’s requested comment from O’Toole on his troubles with caucus, his response to people already envisioning another leadership race and the pitch he would make to keep disaffected Tories in the fold. In an emailed response, his director of communications, Chelsea Tucker, would only say that their focus is to outline the “clear choice” Canadians will have in the next election—between “more of the same” from other parties or “a secure future” under O’Toole.

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O'Toole at a press conference in Ottawa in May 2021 (Sean Kilpatrick/CP)

O’Toole at a press conference in Ottawa in May 2021 (Sean Kilpatrick/CP)

Ken Boessenkool thinks Erin O’Toole is threading the needle handily. The long-time conservative guru is not optimistic about the party’s electoral prospects, per se—if the Liberals aren’t particularly weak and the NDP isn’t particularly strong, it’s an uphill battle—but he says he’s hopeful about its overall direction. “He’s got to take off the table some of the more rabid social conservative issues and he needs to have a credible climate change policy,” Boessenkool says. “He’s doing the work he needs to do to give himself a shot.”

Both are what one senior strategist calls “hygiene issues.” Nobody at Conservative HQ is expecting to win votes from people whose top priority is the environment. But a lack of policy could be a deal-breaker for many more—something Lisa Raitt says she regularly heard at the door in 2019. And while Andrew Scheer struggled to communicate his own socially conservative views, O’Toole is pro-choice and regularly talks about LGBTQ rights. Liberals will have a hard time accusing him of a hidden agenda.

Those key roadblocks to Conservative support in the GTA seem to have been addressed, says Fraser Macdonald, who is managing the campaign in Pickering–Uxbridge. “I think people are very open to a centre-right pragmatic conservative. That’s [O’Toole’s] brand and how he is being perceived.”

Polling from the Angus Reid Institute in May found that about half of Conservative voters oppose the environmental plan, and one in five are less likely to support the party again. It also found small but meaningful percentages of people who voted for other parties in 2019 would now be more likely to vote Conservative—including 19 per cent of those who voted for the Bloc Québécois.

Marc-André Leclerc, former chief of staff to Scheer, is keenly aware of how difficult it is for the party to please Quebecers and westerners at the same time. But he says it may be worth it to lose a little support in Alberta and the B.C. Interior if it means picking up seats in Quebec, where the party is gaining ground, and in Ontario. The electoral math is pretty clear: “We know the rules, so let’s play.”

The central war room that will crunch those numbers has been built and torn down three times in the past six or seven months, a senior campaign source says, in response to the perceived potential for an election. It has allowed the team to identify problems and patch up holes. They’ve also hired consultants from the U.K. to “modernize” their approach, especially in an attempt to replicate across-the-pond appeals to blue-collar workers.

But the farther away you get from headquarters, the more skeptical organizers seem to be. Many see O’Toole’s few positions as disingenuous, a focus group-driven pivot away from his “true blue” leadership message. The majority of sources who spoke to Maclean’s anonymously say they would consider it a win if the party simply held on to its existing seats.

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In Western Canada, there is an expectation some support will bleed to fringe parties—Maxime Bernier’s People’s Party, which hindered Conservative victories in a handful of ridings in 2019, and the western separatist Maverick Party. Maverick’s leader, Jay Hill, sees opportunity in a “chasm” between O’Toole’s central Canada focus and his core supporters in Alberta. “I’m not saying we’re going to win any seats, and I’m not saying we’re going to be a dramatic threat to the Conservative Party the first time around,” says Hill. “I’m just saying it’s possible, when I see that level of distrust, that sense of betrayal.”

Preston Manning, who led the Reform movement to major success in its second election in 1993, sees “growing alienation” in the West and believes it’s imperative for every major political party to address the roots of that discontent and the growing interest in the secession option. “These regions have the capacity to really disrupt things if they get completely alienated from the federal system.”

Still, a senior party official in Alberta says though some Conservatives feel disaffected, especially owing to frustrations at the provincial level, most aren’t ready to “throw the baby out with the bath water.” Only about three of the party’s seats, in urban areas of Alberta, could be at risk in the next election, the official predicts. Maybe five, in a “disastrous” campaign.

READ: The Conservatives’ great big climate problem: 338Canada

The mood in British Columbia looks pessimistic, with one organizer expecting a “rough time” in the Lower Mainland and another in a Liberal riding saying the election will be a “perfunctory exercise.” Justin Jones, a member of the Prince George–Peace River–Northern Rockies riding association, says he thinks those unhappy with the party’s direction are “a loud minority.” But he, too, thinks the party could lose some support out West—even if it’s in service to a better result overall. In a possible acknowledgement of the need to reach out to B.C., more than half of O’Toole’s public events in 2021 (at least, those advertised to the parliamentary press gallery) have been with chambers of commerce or boards of trade in the province. By contrast, he only participated in one such event in Atlantic Canada.

Core supporters in the Maritimes say they are feeling forgotten, and seeing a lack of motivation among people who would normally champ at the bit to go door-knocking. One Nova Scotia organizer says “it’s a pretty disengaged group.” Despite the fact that a son of the province, Fred DeLorey, is in charge of the campaign, there has been next to no outreach from O’Toole since he defeated MacKay.

John Williamson, the MP for New Brunswick Southwest and one of just four Conservatives sitting east of Quebec, says O’Toole is well aware of the malaise around MacKay’s leadership loss, “and to his credit realizes he needs to do more work.” Williamson believes several seats are in play for Conservatives in his own province; although, like everyone else, he can tell where the focus of the party’s HQ is. “I know the attention is often on, particularly, the 416 and the 905 and the races in Quebec,” he says, “but to win that majority government, it starts in Atlantic Canada.”

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It has, by any standard, been an extraordinarily difficult time to be the leader of the Opposition. O’Toole can’t go to backyard BBQs or church basements. He can’t hold a rally. He can barely get airtime on TV.

Nonetheless, polls have consistently put Conservatives within spitting distance of the Liberals. In late May, many pointed to an Abacus Data poll showing the two parties neck-and-neck as a positive sign. The same poll, though, confirmed one of the party’s biggest problems: twice as many Canadians have a negative opinion of O’Toole as have a positive one. Only half of Tory voters like him. Only 29 per cent of Alberta Conservatives do. A former senior official says those numbers are “objectively bad,” almost impossible to spin. But current campaign staff are convinced Canadians just don’t know the guy yet.

The only thing that seems to cut through the pandemic noise is the odd social media misstep, like a quickly deleted meme from the main party account that implied Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s ideal summer would have you on a ventilator (an example of the “same old mistakes” that Conservatives seem to make, as one former staffer puts it). That inability to break into the pandemic news cycle is holding them back from putting out a platform. “There is a vision, yes. But releasing that now would be like releasing it into a void,” a senior strategist says. “No one would hear it. No one would see it. No one would remember it.”

In the meantime, there’s not a lot to talk about. Several Conservatives are keen to point out that they’ve been able to make hay with criticism of the Liberals’ telecommunications legislation, Bill C-10. One MP says the legislation has “mobilized a lot of us around each other again,” but with no thanks to O’Toole himself, who initially told caucus it would be a “nothing bill.”

As evidenced by O’Toole’s recent appearances and by what his candidates are saying in boilerplate emails to Maclean’s, the talking points are still heavily focused on Trudeau’s handling of the pandemic, a line of attack some sources worry is getting old as vaccination rates rapidly increase. There is also O’Toole’s five-point recovery plan—which is more of an outline, and about as innocuous and easy to agree with as the convention’s “why I love Canada” videos.

Even those sources who are pleased with his leadership so far say they want to see O’Toole come out with a positive message that has more teeth, and that addresses the disconnects within his own party. Why should social conservatives volunteer their energy? Why should his base show up at the polls? Why should swing voters trust him? What, exactly, makes him better than Trudeau?

It’s a fool’s errand to try to predict what could happen in a post-pandemic election campaign. But if Erin O’Toole’s Conservative Party is to stand a chance of convincing the general public that it deserves to lead this country—and that its message really will be a positive, inclusive one—it would do well to start persuading its own people.


This article appears in print in the July 2021 issue of Maclean’s magazine with the headline, “The shaky blue tent.” Subscribe to the monthly print magazine here.