Erin O’Toole has been removed as Conservative Party leader following a leadership review vote on Feb. 2 that saw 73 MPs in the caucus in favour of replacing him compared to 45 endorsing him. It’s a deja vu moment for the Conservatives, given that Andrew Scheer faced the same fate after losing the 2019 election.
Prior to the vote, O’Toole said the challenge to his leadership was coming from MPs who haven’t caught up with modern Canada. However, political observers contend that he abandoned core conservative principles during the election campaign, resulting in a loss of supporters, and that he was never able to unite the party’s factions.
In a series of tweets on Jan. 31, O’Toole painted the challenge as coming from the more conservative elements of the party, making the choice of direction for the party a dichotomy between what he says are “extreme” elements on the right and the more liberal path he’s chosen.
“Mr. O’Toole is trying to hold on to power obviously, as any leader would, by stigmatizing his opponents as a group of social conservatives out of touch with Canada’s political realities,” Geoffrey Hale, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Lethbridge, said in an interview prior to the Feb. 2 vote.
“My sense of what I’ve seen so far is that that is the reflex action of a politician who has been backed into a corner.”
Hale says there’s a group of Conservative MPs not inherently opposed to O’Toole who found themselves in the middle but who wouldn’t support him because of his style.
“[They] are not ideologically opposed to Mr. O’Toole necessarily, but have concerns over the quality of his leadership, his communication skills, his ability to communicate authenticity through serial flip-flops, and other challenges that have set him on his back foot in the last six months, including the last half of the election campaign,” he says.
O’Toole’s inability to rally his party around specific values or ideas may have been one of the core problems, Hale said, adding that the main trigger for the revolt within the Conservative caucus was the Cummings Report, which evaluated O’Toole’s performance during the last election.
Its author, former Alberta Conservative MP James Cummings, told Global News that O’Toole’s lack of decisiveness on issues such as firearms and climate change had a negative impact.
For Tom Flanagan, an adviser to former prime minister Stephen Harper and a former political science professor at the University of Calgary, the lost election and the ensuing disappointment was the biggest issue for O’Toole, and the infighting brought things to a head.
“Once you get that feeling that you’re unhappy with the leader, then everything that comes along becomes a spark for more public disagreement,” Flanagan said, whether it be the Cummings Report or O’Toole’s unclear stance on the trucker convoy and protest.
“When you get this chronic infighting going out into the public, it’s usually a sign that things are fairly bad and that there has to be a change in leadership.”
He said O’Toole fell into this predicament because he changed his stance on critical issues.
“He set this up by running as a more conservative candidate, and then pivoted once he became leader, so he disappointed a lot of his original supporters,” he said.
“It is possible sometimes to disappoint your original supporters, but then you have to overcome that by bringing in a lot of new support, but O’Toole didn’t do that. … He performed about as well in this election as Andrew Scheer did in the previous one.”
Even if he had survived the leadership vote, there wouldn’t have been a path forward for O’Toole given the fighting within the party, Flanagan says.
“In general, parties don’t do well in elections when they’re openly fighting among themselves. Canadians don’t like that, for better or worse. Canadians seem to like a party that is cohesive.”
Marco Navarro-Génie, president of the Haultain Research Institute, says the Conservatives tend to find themselves in a “perennial leadership-questioning mode,” in part because they give more leeway to individual members as opposed to “the more collectivist parties.”
He also pinpoints O’Toole’s change of stance on key issues as a core grievance.
“He campaigned on the right wing of the party, there’s no question about that, and then during the election he flipped to essentially closer to the Liberals, or to the left of the Liberals in some cases. That was a big gamble.”
Navarro-Génie says events of the past week surrounding the trucker convoy and protest could have been the straw that broke the camel’s back for some MPs.
O’Toole was first quiet on the issue, he says, “then there was kind of an attempt at trying to position him somewhere close to the truckers, but far away from the truckers at the same time, kind of way too cautious.”
Then as reports of hateful symbols appearing near the protest made the news, O’Toole tried to distance himself and took the same position as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Navarro-Génie says.
“His tweet about it was exactly the position of the prime minister … and I am sure that it must have annoyed several members of caucus that he would sound like Justin, ahead of Justin.”