After the machine used to open ballot envelopes malfunctioned, damaging several thousand voting cards and causing hours of delay, Erin O’Toole was announced as the new Conservative Party of Canada leader at 1:00 A.M. Monday morning. O’Toole won on the third ballot with 57%, with Peter MacKay coming in second, Leslyn Lewis in third, and Derek Sloan finishing last. On the third and final ballot, O’Toole took support from Lewis, who finished with a remarkably strong performance. With nearly 175,000 ballots cast, this weekend’s contest saw the highest number of votes in any Canadian political party’s history.
To capture the leadership of the Conservative party, candidates need to draw support and interest from the different strands of Canadian conservatism. Recognizing this, the O’Toole campaign ran up endorsements from caucus and former candidates (including the newer and younger faces) while portraying O’Toole as a ‘true blue’ conservative, an approach that attracted the down-ballot support of social conservative members and secured the second and third votes of Lewis and Sloan supporters. While some commentators argue that O’Toole swung right to win the leadership, his team argues strongly that this is not the case. Instead, they say his policies are largely the same as those he ran on in 2017. What is uncontested is that O’Toole and his team ran a disciplined, strategic race that built on his solid third place finish in the 2017 leadership race, and benefited from the weaknesses of the perceived frontrunner’s, Peter MacKay, somewhat slipshod campaign.
Despite being a former Cabinet minister in the Harper government and an elected MP for eight years, O’Toole is not well-known by voters. This relative anonymity comes with advantages and disadvantages: he has a chance to (re) introduce and (re) invent himself, but he will have to do it quickly – the Liberals will be racing to define O’Toole as a “Scheer 2.0.” O’Toole acknowledged his limited visibility in his victory speech, saying half-way through, “To the millions of Canadians that I am meeting tonight for the first time…Hello, I’m Erin O’Toole….” (full speech below).
Where he is well-known, of course, is in the Conservative caucus. O’Toole is generally well-liked by his teammates and colleagues, who are eager to present a united front around the new leader. Unity shortcomings that have plagued past leaders are unlikely to re-emerge. Moreover, O’Toole is inheriting a party in strong shape, one that has sustained its strong fundraising arsenal throughout the pandemic and is well-placed, financially, for a snap election.
Throughout the campaign, O’Toole had touted his seat in the House of Commons as a necessary precondition for holding Prime Minister Trudeau’s minority government to account: with a seat, he argues, he will be immediately able to use Parliament to take on the Government when the House of Commons returns on September 23. Of course, “taking on the Government” has special meaning now that it could mean “taking down the Government,” with a confidence vote in just one month. At this point, it is widely expected that the Conservatives will argue non-confidence, placing the burden of whether to hold a COVID general election or prop up the Trudeau government on the NDP. O’Toole’s top priority will be readying his party for both the confidence vote itself, and the consequences of the vote.
While O’Toole campaigned on a few hardline principles, such as opposing a price for carbon and on strong anti-China rhetoric, he has a reasonable degree of policy flexibility. We expect that over the next coming weeks, the new leader will spell out a clearer, more welcoming vision as to what an O’Toole party and government will do for Canadians – a vision that McMillan Vantage’s Tausha Michaud and Melanie Paradis will play a key and strategic role in facilitating.