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Candice Bergen voted interim Conservative leader after caucus ousts O’Toole

Candice Bergen voted interim Conservative leader after caucus ousts O'Toole-Milenio Stadium-Canada
Candice Bergen attends a news conference with the now-former Conservative leader Erin O’Toole in September 2020. Bergen was voted in as O’Toole’s interim replacement by party MPs on Wednesday. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Candice Bergen was voted interim leader of the Conservatives on Wednesday evening after a majority of party MPs voted to remove Erin O’Toole as leader earlier in the day.

Bergen has been the MP for the Manitoba riding of Portage–Lisgar since 2008. She was previously the Conservatives’ deputy leader and has been among the party’s most prominent voices in the House of Commons, where she frequently squares off against Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and other senior ministers during question period.

Bergen was among nine candidates vying to be interim leader during the party’s Wednesday evening caucus meeting, Conservative Party sources told CBC News.

As interim leader, Bergen will not be allowed to run for permanent leader when that race is conducted. A date has not yet been determined.

Bergen previously served as the Opposition House leader from 2016 to 2020 and was also minister of state for social development under Stephen Harper.

O’Toole’s removal paves the way for another leadership race only 18 months after the party finished the last one.

The result wasn’t particularly close: 73 of the 118 MPs on hand — the party’s caucus chair, Scott Reid, did not cast a ballot — voted to replace O’Toole.

O’Toole, a four-term Ontario MP, fought only one federal election campaign as leader.

After the vote was over, O’Toole officially resigned his post in a letter to Rob Batherson, the president of the Conservative Party of Canada. O’Toole will begin moving out of his office immediately.

In a resignation video posted to Twitter, O’Toole described his time as leader as “the honour of a lifetime” — before warning that “Canada is in a dire moment of our history.”

O’Toole asked politicians and the next Conservative leader to “recognize that our country is divided and people are worried,” pointing to the ongoing protests taking place just outside Parliament.

“I pledge my support and unwavering loyalty to our next leader and I urge everyone in our party to come together and do the same,” he said.

O’Toole, a former air navigator in the Canadian Armed Forces and a corporate lawyer, was first elected in a 2012 byelection. He pledged Wednesday to stay on as MP for the Toronto area riding of Durham.

Trudeau, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh and Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-François Blanchet each acknowledged O’Toole during question period on Wednesday.

“There is a lot we don’t agree on for the direction of this country, but he stepped up to serve his country and I want to thank him for his sacrifice,” Trudeau said.

O’Toole faced a barrage of criticism from his colleagues for shifting the party’s positions on carbon taxation, balanced budgets and “assault-style” firearms during the election campaign.

Anti-O’Toole MPs were also frustrated with his decision to run as a “true blue” Conservative in the party’s leadership race, only to shift the party to the centre when in the top job.

Some MPs were also disappointed by a post-election report released last week to caucus that laid the blame for many of the 2021 campaign’s failings on senior staff — and not on O’Toole personally. Party sources said they felt he did not take enough responsibility for the disappointing result. In the end, enough MPs decided it was grounds for his dismissal.

O’Toole’s last-minute warning — that a vote against him and his more moderate vision of Canadian conservatism would put the party on the wrong path — failed to rally enough MPs to his side.

Garnett Genuis, one of the MPs who led the fight against O’Toole, was tight-lipped after the vote.

Earlier this week, Genuis lashed out at O’Toole and his staff, accusing them of lying about his record to suppress a caucus revolt.

Conservative MP Garnett Genuis-Milenio Stadium-Canada
Conservative MP Garnett Genuis walks towards West Block before question period on Tuesday, in Ottawa. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Genuis said Wednesday the lopsided vote against O’Toole gives the party an “opportunity to come together and move forward as a Conservative Party that’s united and focused.”

While he helped to lead the effort to dump O’Toole, Genuis said he’s “absolutely not” interested in running to replace him.

In a statement after the vote, Matt Jeneroux, an Edmonton-area MP who also backed the movement to fire O’Toole, said the party needs a leader who “clearly reflects our values.”

Jeneroux, a politician who describes himself as socially liberal and fiscally conservative, said O’Toole confused voters with his shifting positions.

Conservative MP Matt Jeneroux-Milenio Stadium-Canada
Conservative MP Matt Jeneroux rises during in the House of Commons on Feb. 4, 2020. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

“We must rebuild trust amongst Canadians and show them that we are strong and stable leaders who are rooted in our values while also understanding that we can evolve, learn and modernize our party to reflect all,” he said. “This is an opportunity for the party.”

Social conservative and anti-abortion activists celebrated O’Toole’s decisive defeat. O’Toole’s efforts to drag the party to the centre on social issues — the party suppressed debate on abortion during the last Conservative policy convention, for example — alienated some Conservative ground troops.

‘Fake conservative’

“O’Toole has time and again betrayed the party’s socially conservative base with his support for abortion, LGBT ideology, oppressive lockdowns, and liberty-destroying passports for abortion-tainted vaccines,” said Jeff Gunnarson, the president of the Campaign Life Coalition. “It’s about time this fake conservative was given the boot.”

Conservative MP Eric Duncan, an O’Toole ally and caucus secretary to the party, thanked the outgoing leader for his service while urging members to “unite” and “focus on defeating the Liberals in the next election.”

“Leadership races can be a uniting process. We can be united. We need to get on the same page and we need to move in the same direction and I’m very confident there’s a strong willingness to do that,” he said.

Conservative MP for Leeds-Grenville-Milenio Stadium-Canada
Conservative MP for Leeds—Grenville—Thousand Islands and Rideau Lakes Michael Barrett rises during question period in the House of Commons on April 16, 2021. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

Ontario MP Michael Barrett, a confidant of O’Toole and a member of his leadership team, said the outgoing leader did the best he could to steer the party through uncertain times.

Barrett said O’Toole had led the party for less than a year when Trudeau called a snap election last fall, giving him little time to properly introduce himself to voters and challenge Trudeau for power.

“It’s been tough being the leader of the Opposition,” Barrett said. “Now, I just want to make sure our party elects a leader that gives us the best opportunity to replace a tired and corrupt Liberal government.”

This development will force the party brass to immediately begin organizing a leadership race on a very tight timeline. An election could be called at any time in this minority Parliament.

The Reform Act, the federal legislation that empowers Conservative MPs to remove their leader, does not specify how the next permanent leader will be elected, leaving that decision to the party itself.

The party’s national council will meet as soon as possible to start planning for that race, a spokesperson for the party said. The first step for the council is to appoint a leadership election organizing committee to plan this contest.

‘Hopefully, the third permanent leader will be the charm’

Speaking later to CBC’s Power & Politics, Batherson, the party president, said he understands there’s an urgent need to get a new leader in place quickly.

Asked if he was concerned that launching a third leadership race in only five years would strain the party’s financial and human resources, Batherson said the party’s got a lot of money and a strong foundation.

“Hopefully, the third permanent leader will be the charm,” he said. “The good thing is we’re experienced at this by now.”

Conservative MP Mark Strahl, who was at odds with O’Toole during his time at the top, said the caucus is hoping there will be a new permanent leader by the fall.

“I don’t think there’s any desire in the party for a drawn-out process. I think, given the minority nature of Parliament, we want to get that face before Canadians as soon as possible,” he said.

“We’re going to unite behind that person to bring a solid Conservative message to Canadians.”

CBC

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