Paul Tuns

Following what Erin O’Toole himself called a “disappointing” election result in September, the Conservative leader promised a review of the party’s campaign. Many disappointed party members do not want to wait for the results of the review that will be conducted by the former MP, James Cumming, hand-picked by O’Toole to explore the good, the bad, and the ugly of O’Toole’s campaign that saw the Conservatives lose two seats and about 500,000 votes compared to 2019.

O’Toole’s strategists have described the campaign as a success, noting that the party won the most votes nationwide and that the Conservative margin of loss in large cities was decreasing, conveniently overlooking that this had more to do with the Liberals losing more support than the Conservatives but still winning with large majorities.

The campaign was a disappointment for pro-life and other socially conservative Tory supporters as the party lost three pro-life MPs in the Toronto and Vancouver suburbs.

There seems to be a concerted effort by O’Toole’s strategists to push some of the “extreme” social conservatives out of the party in order to make gains in the political center. It did not work in September, but O’Toole’s team is suggesting that the inroads they have allegedly begun will take time to bear electoral victories in the cities.

Senator Michael MacDonald (Nova Scotia) criticized the party’s showing under O’Toole. “The status quo under the present circumstances is a mistake and a gift to the Liberals that this party and this country cannot afford,” he wrote.

Following the election, Campaign Life Coalition called upon O’Toole to resign considering the disappointing results for the party and pro-lifers. Their analysis suggested that bleeding support to the generally more socially conservative People’s Party of Canada, and convincing many traditional Conservative voters to stay home with its “Liberal Lite” platform, cost the Conservatives enough seats to form a minority government. 

On election night, Bert Chen, a member of National Council, the governing board of the Conservatives, issued a tweet calling for party members to sign a petition calling for an immediate leadership review. The party’s constitution says a leader must face a leadership review at the first national convention held after any election that the party does not form government. The next national convention is not scheduled until 2023.

O’Toole resisted calls to resign or put his leadership to review, saying it would be reckless because Justin Trudeau could call an election within the next 18 months. National Council suspended Chen for 60 days and last month it said the suspension would be indefinite if he did not cooperate with an investigation that includes asking him to turn over all his emails. 

In their first caucus meeting following the 2021 election, the Conservative MPs voted themselves the power to expel colleagues (as they did following the 2019 election), but this time they also voted to give themselves the power to remove the party leader, a power they did not give themselves. If 20 per cent of the caucus signs a letter asking for a leadership review, the caucus chair, which is now MP Scott Reid (Lanark-Frontenac-Kingston), the caucus would vote to remove O’Toole as leader.

O’Toole said he supported the caucus voting for both of these powers, but has insisted that the caucus is united behind his leadership.

Following the first caucus meeting, CLC called upon the Conservative MPs to remove O’Toole as soon as possible. CLC national president Jeff Gunnarson said, “The Conservatives cannot win the next election with this failed leader at the helm.”

According to several sources, The Interim has learned that 20 per cent of the caucus has signed a letter to Reid asking for a review of O’Toole’s leadership, although it has not been presented to him yet. CLC was encouraging its supporters to put pressure on their MPs to exercise the power to remove O’Toole as leader.

Meanwhile, on Nov. 15, Senator Denise Batters (Saskatchewan) launched an official petition calling for a confidence vote to review O’Toole’s leadership within six months. She said according, to many metrics, that the Conservatives did worse in 2021 than in 2019, and that O’Toole, who ran as a “true blue” conservative in last year’s leadership race, moved leftward on many issues in the general election campaign. She noted that he flip-flopped on conscience rights, carbon taxes, and guns. Batters said in the video introducing the petition, “This campaign was not lost because of Mr. O’Toole’s mistakes or inexperience: It was lost because of what Canadian voters perceive as his character flaw, that he is not trustworthy. You can’t come back from that.”

CLC praised Batters, a social conservative senator who nonetheless backed Andrew Scheer in 2017 and Peter MacKay in 2020, saying she “is absolutely right to point out that Conservative members across Canada are demanding that O’Toole has to go.” Gunnarson said, “He betrayed small-c conservative principles, official party policy, and he flip-flopped constantly.” Gunnarson added, “O’Toole’s strategy of steering the party to the left on numerous core issues was foolish. He disrespected the values that many grassroots Conservatives hold dear including the sanctity of life and conscience rights for health care professionals who do not want to participate in abortion or euthanasia.” CLC director of political operations Jack Fonseca said, “Senator Batters is doing the party a huge favour by moving to recall O’Toole.” CLC encouraged party members to sign the petition, noting it would send a strong signal that the base of the party does not support O’Toole as leader. 

National Council president Robert Batherson claimed Batters’ petition was unconstitutional; she is considering legal action if it is ignored by National Council. When The Interim went to press, the petition garnered 3,000 signatures.

On Nov. 16, O’Toole kicked Batters out of the Conservative caucus and said he would eagerly kick out any MP who questions his leadership — even though the caucus voted to take that power away from him in October. Three days later, the Conservative senators said Batters would remain part of their Senate caucus, suggesting a possible rift between O’Toole and the unelected portion of his caucus.

There is mounting pressure for O’Toole to go, but his strategists online have insisted it is a mistake to under-estimate the leader. They have dug in their heels, saying that Stephen Harper did not win on his first try leading the party — ignoring the fact that he had just unified a divided right and increased both the total number of votes and seats and reduced the Paul Martin-led Liberals to a minority. But it is clear that O’Toole is readying for a fight.