Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole said today he believes he has enough support from his party’s MPs to stay on as leader if he’s forced to go through a caucus leadership review.
Three weeks after losing the election to the incumbent Liberals, Conservative MPs gathered in Ottawa today for a caucus meeting to discuss the disappointing result — and vote on a series of measures that could give MPs the power to fire O’Toole and launch another leadership race to replace him.
While there has been grumbling in Conservative circles over O’Toole’s performance during the campaign — at least one caucus member told CBC News that they want to see him resign — the leader said today he thinks he has enough support to hang on and lead the party through another election.
“Yes I do,” O’Toole said when asked if he has the backing of most MPs.
“I’ve spoken to most of the caucus. We’re all disappointed — no one more so than me — but we need to make sure we build on the gains we have made, learn from where we fell short. That’s what any team, any family does when you have a disappointment, you learn from it and you come together and that’s what this meeting will do today.”
‘We have to be ready to run again’
O’Toole said his focus will be on holding Trudeau to account and preparing the party for another election, which could come at any time in a minority Parliament. “We have to be ready to run again,” he said.
“I think Mr. Trudeau has already let Canadians down again in his first 10 days,” O’Toole said, referring to Trudeau’s beach vacation in Tofino, B.C. on the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation. “He has more lessons to learn than we do.”
Following the terms of the Reform Act — legislation drafted by Conservative MP Michael Chong and adopted by Parliament in 2015 — a series of votes will be held at the start of today’s caucus meeting. The votes are designed to give MPs and, to a lesser degree, senators more decision-making power in a parliamentary system that has become increasingly centralized around party leaders and their teams.
MPs will vote on whether to give themselves the power to elect a caucus chair or expel an MP, if necessary. They will also decide on whether to prompt a leadership review.
At least 20 per cent of caucus members must formally request such a review. If enough agree, a secret ballot vote is then held to decide the fate of the leader.
If a simple majority of members vote against O’Toole in such a process, an interim leader could be appointed and the party might be forced to launch a search for O’Toole’s permanent successor.
Conservative MP Shannon Stubbs, who represents the rural Alberta riding of Lakeland, said O’Toole will face tough questions about the party’s drift to the political centre in the election.
During the campaign, O’Toole embraced a big-spending platform and promised to push off a return to balance budgets for ten years. He also initially promised to repeal a Liberal ban on assault-style firearms — only to backtrack during the campaign.
Stubbs said that shift in O’Toole’s position hurt her in her local race; she said she saw 15 per cent fewer votes cast in her name than she did in 2019.
“I believe there needs to be an accounting on how it is that we are going to maintain Conservative voters, maintain confidence among Conservative voters and supporters,” she said.
She said O’Toole’s embrace of a more moderate form of conservatism — which was sold as a way to win over voters in urban areas of central Canada — failed to pay dividends.
“The reality is that today, after the 2021 election, Conservatives are more rural, more homogeneous than we’ve ever been before. And we lost great, strong, necessary colleagues in big cities in every part of this country,” she said.
Most of the MPs who stopped to speak to reporters ahead of the caucus meeting said they support O’Toole staying on as leader, even if they supported some of the Reform Act policies in principle.
Conservative MP Marilyn Gladu, who ran for the party’s leadership last year, said O’Toole “showed himself to be a really impressive leader. He did well in the debates, the platform was great. He did lead the team well and no one is perfect.”
But she added there were “a few problematic points in that campaign” that need to be addressed before the next election. She said some Conservative supporters were disappointed by the “flip-flop on the carbon tax” and O’Toole’s shifting position on firearms during the campaign.
Conservative MP Karen Vecchio, who fended off a People’s Party challenger in her southwestern Ontario riding, said she is “100 per cent, absolutely” behind O’Toole.
“I think the story will be gone by 12 o’clock,” she said of today’s caucus meeting.
Chong said he “supports Erin staying on as leader” because the party performed better in Ontario and Quebec than in past elections, picked up a seat in Newfoundland and Labrador for the first time in 10 years and won back traditionally Tory ridings in the Maritimes.
“The topline results look very similar to the last election. But when you look beneath the hood, so to speak, the results are quite different. Was it enough? Clearly not,” Chong said.
“I think he should stay on because I think he’s set us on the right track. Clearly we’ve got some work to do but if we stay on this track — with changes, clearly mistakes were made — I think that sets us up well for the next election.”
Conservative B.C. MP Dan Albas said the party is well-positioned to win in the next election. “Everyone I’ve been speaking to so far has been saying the same thing — the Liberals, the trend is not their friend,” he said. “We’ve grown our vote share in parts of the country we haven’t won in a long time.”
“I fully support Mr. O’Toole,” said Conservative Alberta MP Michelle Rempel Garner. “We’re all looking forward to getting back to work.”
If he can avoid a caucus revolt in the meantime, O’Toole faces another formal challenge to his position in 2023.
Under the party’s constitution, there is an automatic leadership review at the first national Conservative convention “following a federal general election when the party does not form the government and the leader has not indicated, prior to the commencement of the national convention, an irrevocable intention to resign.”
So if O’Toole does not resign before the planned 2023 convention, delegates will be asked to vote on whether they want to launch a “new leadership selection process” to replace him. The scars from this campaign may have faded by the time members get a say.