‘Unchartered’ waters: some Tories choose sides ahead of O’Toole leadership vote

By Palak Mangat February 2, 2022

As Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole gears up for a leadership review that could take place as early as today, several Tories began publicly staking their ground for or against the captain on Tuesday, with one dissenter condemning him for “doubling down” on alleged threats and attacks against his opponents.

But one longtime Conservative organizer behind a new group backing O’Toole, dubbed the Majority Committee, told Parliament Today MPs should consider granting him more time to show he is moving on recommendations laid out in an election post-mortem report, which was submitted last week.

Fraser Macdonald said the campaign aims to rally behind O’Toole “on behalf of those of us who support common sense policy and understand we need to be united” in order to present a credible alternative to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberals.

The group urges supporters to lend their name to a list of the “growing grassroots coalition” as it aims to help O’Toole “win a strong, stable, national” majority regime in the next election, framing the conservative movement as currently “at a crossroads.”

Tensions came to a head late Monday when word emerged that 35 MPs signed a letter calling for a caucus leadership review earlier than the one scheduled at next year’s convention for CPC members.

With 119 MPs in caucus, including O’Toole, it will only take 24 Tories to press a vote today, per the CPC’s rulebook. Ousting the leader will require a majority, or at least 60 votes, against him. An interim leader would then be installed.

The party is scheduled to hold its regular caucus meeting today. The leader was reportedly working the phones yesterday in hopes of holding support.

Macdonald said his goal is to ensure different factions of the party are “balanced.”

Pressed how that can be done with such a fractured caucus, he acknowledged it’s become obvious that there is “a lot of bridge-building to do.”

He sympathized with those irked by losing an election that “was possibly within reach,” arguing the captain should be given enough time to act on recommendations in the post-mortem report compiled by former MP James Cumming.

Not so, said thrice-elected MP Bob Benzen, who holds the Calgary Heritage seat of former PM Stephen Harper and backed O’Toole in his 2017 and 2020 leadership bids.

Benzen said late Monday O’Toole has been given “more than enough chances for a course correction,” listing off grievances like a “de-facto carbon tax policy” and his failure to “clearly” defend unspecified charter rights during the pandemic.

Reaction to Benzen’s letter was swift.

O’Toole, in a thread just before midnight, vowed he is not “going anywhere” or “turning back,” saying that “it’s time for a reckoning. To settle this in caucus. Right here. Right now. Once and for all.”

The leader, who’s been dogged by his record of campaigning as a “true blue Tory” during the leadership vote, only to take more moderate positions during the election campaign, said one road for the CPC to take reflects an “angry, negative and extreme” tone while the other recognizes the need to “better reflect the Canada of 2022.”

Benzen shot back late yesterday that O’Toole’s remarks “confirmed [his] worst fears,” as rather than “humbly” try to fix the situation, he is threatening “consequences” for his detractors.

Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole addresses supporters in a recent Facebook Live video. (Erin O’Toole/Facebook)

Ball in O’Toole’s court if he survives, says expert

Audrey Brennan, a doctoral student who studies political parties and leadership selections at Laval University and Université libre de Bruxelles, said it is “notable” the Tory leader is facing the prospect of a confidence vote while Parliament is in session, let alone the opening days of a new sitting.

While past leaders like Andrew Scheer and Stephen Harper resigned from their posts after unsatisfactory election results, O’Toole doesn’t appear “ready” to leave the helm yet, she noted.

If a caucus vote is held today and he survives, “it’s up to him” whether he keeps up his efforts to lead a caucus rife with infighting, Brennan said.

“The question is, how long do you want to juggle social conservatism and economic conservatism? I feel the party is at a crucial decision of how it manages [that] within the Canadian political landscape,” said Brennan.

Should O’Toole stay on, Brennan added the extent to how much the caucus supports him “going forward will depend on the issues that come up.” That case-by-case mantra could continue to highlight more fissure within the CPC ranks — meaning “there is no way of knowing which way” the vote will go and “how long [his tenure] will last” if the vote is favourable.

“MPs rarely publicly disagree with the leader unless it’s time to take a new direction, so during leadership selections, or on issues where they’ve been given permission to publicly disagree,” she said. “But what we’re seeing right now, we haven’t seen in a long time.” With several MPs taking to social media to air their grievances, it’s clear that some have “just had it” with the leadership and his team.

For his part, O’Toole tweeted late Monday that the MPs who signed the letter against him “must accept” the result of today’s vote. Since they brought it, they will “have to live with it,” he said in an apparent show of confidence.

Among those who rallied behind O’Toole yesterday were his deputy Candice Bergen, longtime Tory Michelle Rempel Garner and rookie Chris d’Entremont. Those who’ve spoken out against him in recent days include Garnett Genuis, who hails from the party’s social conservative wing.

For her part, Rempel Garner said party members should be the ones deciding on a leadership review, eschewing the merits of a caucus-triggered vote.

Yesterday, Ontario Premier Doug Ford, whose province is gearing up for an election in June, ruled out a run for the leadership should the position open up, as did Alberta Premier Jason Kenney, who faces his own leadership review in April.

A couple of others who’ve had their names thrown around for possible replacements are Ed Fast and Tom Kmiec. Fast said yesterday he does not want the job while Kmiec said it’s “too early to talk about stuff like that.”