Photo: THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang
Erin O’Toole this week became the first federal party leader ever to be dismissed by a vote of a national caucus. In contrast to a rich heritage and precedent for caucus executions in the United Kingdom, Canada’s version of the Westminster model has traditionally seen more authority vested in party leaders who are directly accountable to party members, by-passing their parliamentary caucuses. This week changed that, with the Tories flexing a muscle adopted through (ironically or presciently) a Conservative private member’s bill passed into law in six years ago which sought to curb the power of party leaders.
But this newfound authority of MPs — the newly acquired muscle they flexed this week — coincided with a rare instance in political history of a leader winning the reins of his party with a minority of MPs backing him. Not only did he assume the leadership with only a small plurality of parliamentary support, but rather than building that support since his ascension, his rule saw only a steady exacerbation of dissent and division.
He assiduously courted the support of social conservative party members in the runoff balloting process, and also vowed to continue the party’s opposition to a focal point of contemporary public policy debate — the principle of a carbon tax.
Once in leadership, however, O’Toole expelled an Ontario MP known for strong social conservative views, and reversed course on carbon pricing. He also embarked unashamedly on a centrist policy course. These individual moves were by no means illegitimate, but his unilateral decision-making catalyzed an ongoing critique from caucus members that they were never consulted and were repeatedly learning of major new party developments through the media. This approach also raised authenticity and trustworthiness questions, given the abruptness of his sequence of pivots.
Similar fractures continued during the 2021 election campaign, with the party’s platform taking a markedly more centrist path than many MPs had expected or wanted. The campaign also saw a sudden change in communication style just past the halfway point, as well as some headline-grabbing policy reversals. While most MPs played along under the pressure and high stakes of the writ, their frustration was vented during the formal campaign post-mortem, whose report was presented to caucus a week before O’Toole’s summary execution.
But make no mistake — the core criticism was not the policy direction per se, but the way in which changes were affected. In 2001, Stephen Harper won the leadership of the Canadian Alliance on a merger-skeptic message that “The Canadian Alliance is strong, and the Canadian Alliance is here to stay.” Two years later, he inked a landmark party merger with the Progressive Conservatives’ Peter MacKay, but only after a public process that saw a warming to the idea of rapprochement, a public negotiation process, and two years of slow adjustment to bring his party along on his pragmatic new direction. O’Toole, in contrast, appeared to vacillate on political questions almost daily, without warning or consultation.
While the examples of O’Toole’s leadership failures are easy enough to enumerate, the Conservative Party of Canada is not an easy party to lead. In a country as large and diverse as Canada, mainstream political parties must regularly bridge regional and ideological divisions. This takes adept leadership, but it also requires what might be termed “followership” — the willingness among caucus and party membership to give and take, to bridge differences and compromise on strongly held views for the greater good.
These attributes can sometimes be in short supply – particularly following the frustration of two failed national elections. The Conservatives’ challenge, however, is not that their movement is out of tune with Canadians. Eight out of ten provincial governments in Canada (all but British Columbia’s and Newfoundland’s) are conservative. So public resonance of conservative thought is clearly not the problem. The problem is national party unity and leadership style.
A successful national conservative leader must be one who recognizes that the party means different things to different people — and to different regions — and can weave the various conservative factions together rather than allow one dominant strain to win out, alienating all others. The party is a tapestry of “Blue Tories” (small government, fiscally prudent and pro-business), “Red Tories” (centrist communitarians), libertarians (get the government out of my face), social conservatives (uphold traditional and family values) and democratic reformers (seeking to increase institutional transparency and accountability).
Regionally, we see East Coast conservatives who tend toward the political centre and a relationship with the state to uphold livelihoods and local communities. In Quebec, conservatism tends to be equated with “soft nationalism”. On the Prairies, it is more of a folksy populism with many NDP/Tory vote switchers. All of these visions must be reconciled for national success, as both Brian Mulroney and Stephen Harper were able to do within their respective political environments. This, then, is the challenge for the next Tory leader. It is less a question of which faction ought to dominate the future of the party, but what leader has the ability to gel and maintain this delicate coalition.
This central question also means it is wrongheaded for Conservative members to evaluate the coming leadership race in terms of which tradition or faction needs to be put in the window. What sells to prospective conservative voters in one region may not be the winning recipe for another. A successful leadership and election require balance, and resisting an undue dominance of any one faction – witness, for example, the surge of the populist People’s Party under the high-spending centrist O’Toole election campaign. Alternatively, witness elections where the Conservative Party was virtually wiped out in Quebec when a libertarian or symmetrically reformist strain dominated, not able to wrap its head around the special cultural and political needs of Quebec.
The good news for the Conservatives is that the 19-year-old party is on the verge of a maturity that finally transcends its factions. The assumed leadership frontrunner – Pierre Poilievre – does not neatly fit into either of the archetypal pigeonholes. He is neither a Bay Street business Tory, nor a Red Tory, nor a libertarian nor a social conservative. He belongs to no faction and, in his politics, is largely acceptable to all. The highly commended Rona Ambrose – former interim leader whose term was heralded as a growth and maturation period for the party – similarly fits into no factional mold.
Who are the prospective leaders, then, and how do their profiles fit in with the needs of today’s national conservative movement? From the federal stage, we will likely hear talk of Peter MacKay, Michael Chong, James Moore and perhaps even Chris Alexander (among others such as Ambrose and Lisa Raitt, who have already publicly declined). From the provincial or municipal scene, we should expect speculation about Ontario ministers Caroline Mulroney and Peter Bethlenfalvy, and Brampton mayor Patrick Brown.
To greater or lesser degrees, each of these figures represents the required trans-factional persona, suggesting the party is likely well poised for a positive and productive race, rather than a divisive and disintegrating one. We will probably see additional candidates representing particular interests. Will there be a standard-bearer for the social conservative faction? Likely. Similarly, we should not be surprised to see someone enter to unequivocally champion a libertarian and anti-lockdown message. This will likely happen too, just as the US Democrats had room for Bernie Sanders, a socialist, in their own race. The new generation of Conservative leaders has the opportunity to fully shed the baggage of past debates and display a pan-conservative style and approach.
The future success of the party will largely hinge on how capable it will be of finally transcending its traditional factionalism. Under Erin O’Toole’s watch, the residual tribes remained, and continued to yank and pull the leader this way and that, impeding compromise to the detriment of unity and national interest. A successful future leader – whoever she or he may be – will be one who serves not as headwaiter to the factions, but rather as coordinator and steward, channelling all their energies forward toward a common goal and collective vision.