The ballots from September’s election weren’t even fully counted yet and the knives were already out for Conservative leader Erin O’Toole. As I wrote last month, there were ample reasons for conservatives – in particular social conservatives – to be displeased with O’Toole’s campaign. Beyond these specific and timely grievances, however, is an ongoing tug-of-war by factions of the party vying for its heart and soul.
The battle over O’Toole’s leadership is the latest manifestation of trouble in the paradise that is the Conservative Party of Canada’s oft-mythologized ‘big blue tent.’
Ah, how idyllic it is, a blue big-top billowing in a spring breeze, under which red Tories, blue Tories, social conservatives, libertarians, fiscal wonks, foreign policy hawks, and populists all hold hands, sing songs, and tell stories. Not quite. As anyone who’s ever seen the inner workings of any internal Conservative party election can tell you, this just doesn’t happen.
It’s true the conservative movement has many facets. The Conservative caucus is, itself, quite ideologically diverse, even though we rarely see an unbroken party line on key issues. The further outward you go, however, the less harmony there seems to be under the tent.
The ones who most fervently insist the Conservative party is a home for everyone are, in practice, the ones most likely to move those tent poles to make the tent just small enough to exclude a couple of those aforementioned groups. The social conservatives are always the first to go.
We’ve seen this in caucus expulsions (see: Derek Sloan), leadership disqualifications (see: Jim Karahalios), and policy resolutions (see: more than I’d care to list here).
Any social conservative I’ve met who identifies as a Conservative simply wants to exist within the party. They’re happy to coexist with the libertarians and the red Tories, so long as there’s still room for them. It’s the left flank of the party that wants to expurgate social conservatives. In my experience there are three possible justifications they provide. They are convinced that: (1) there are more votes to gain on the left; (2) social conservatives will shut up and vote Conservative anyway; (3) it doesn’t really matter—they just dislike social conservatives.
The last election was a test of the first hypothesis. O’Toole moved to the left, and, in doing so, alienated his base without picking up any support in Quebec or the apocryphal “vote-rich GTA.”
The second hypothesis has long been taken for granted by politicians who feel they can continue to count on social conservative support while marginalizing social conservative voices in the party and the movement. This only works when these voters have nowhere else to turn. Staying home is an option, as is voting for a less electable, but morally pure, candidate. But, at the end of the day, there is an allure to the lesser of evils.
This past election was a bit of a game-changer, with the libertarian Maxime Bernier managing to outflank O’Toole and the Conservatives on abortion by promising to end sex-selective and late-term abortions, and, more importantly, allowing unequivocally pro-life candidates to be the People’s Party of Canada’s standard-bearers on social issues. Bernier offered a clarity and ownership to his positions that is rare from Conservative leaders, despite what they may say during their leadership races.
While the PPC has never elected a candidate, it picked up a great deal of momentum this time around, and offered pro-life voters in numerous ridings an option beyond “suck it up” and “stay home.” I know of several pro-life voters who, lacking a pro-life Conservative, happily parked their vote with the PPC.
Regardless of whether the PPC wins any seats in the next election, its existence is a reflection of a Conservative party that needs to remember and respect its base. But this brings me to the third hypothesis, which is that no matter what the electoral math says, some of the red Tories simply don’t like social conservatives and don’t think they have a place in Canadian politics.
This is detectable in some of the language used to describe the party’s Andrew Scheer’s and Leslyn Lewis’es, even though these candidates speak to a constituency of millions of Canadians who lack a clear and consistent champion on social issues.
The Conservative party doesn’t need to be a socially conservative party, but it needs to be a party for social conservatives if it wants to survive.