Behind the scenes, Conservatives know that Erin O’Toole must make party unity his first priority

OTTAWA—“This is still a party that would rather fight than win.”That was the raw feeling inside Peter MacKay’s camp on Monday morning, hours after the Conservative Party co-founder suffered a stinging defeat to Erin O’Toole in the party’s leadership contest.Now that a hard-fought and at times nasty contest is over and O’Toole has taken the reins, what does the race and the results tell us about the DNA of the modern party?Even that’s the subject of debate among partisans, yet a few threads emerge.First, despite a call by O’Toole and outgoing leader Andrew Scheer for party unity, the current Conservative party has not yet moved past the contradictions or divisions of its past, and those old rivalries might yet confound the new leader.Second, the strong showing of Leslyn Lewis and Derek Sloan, the two candidates who were unabashedly socially conservative and anti-abortion, shows a base of support that demands to be taken seriously by the party leader, and not merely pandered to.Third, O’Toole’s courting of his anti-abortion rivals — and his belated declaration that he is personally pro-choice — leave the party open, once again, to Liberal accusations of a hidden agenda in the minds of some Conservatives.O’Toole won with a convincing 57 per cent support on the third ballot. But it was a bruising race that has left hard feelings.A MacKay campaign source who spoke on a background-only basis said that during the race, O’Toole remarked on more than one occasion to fellow Conservatives who did not support his leadership bid, “How are the backbenchers doing?”It may have been a quip. Or a threat. But its meaning was clear: you’re with me or you’re against me. More MPs lined up behind MacKay than O’Toole. Now they wait to see how O’Toole will shape his team for the job ahead.Party unity is imperative for O’Toole’s survival as leader, and for electoral success.Yet the repudiation of the party’s co-founder was a profound personal blow to MacKay and his supporters.MacKay was seen as the front-runner when he entered the leadership race. His campaign had early communications stumbles, but not ones that were necessarily fatal. Even up to last week, Conservative commentators believed it was his to lose.But there was unquestionably a lingering sense that MacKay was a red Tory, too Eastern, too “old party establishment,” too PC, to carry the banner.Alberta Premier Jason Kenny — a former cabinet colleague — backed O’Toole over MacKay, recording videos to support him. O’Toole played to that sentiment, calling MacKay “Liberal-lite.”Late in the night, Andrew Scheer’s former campaign manager, Hamish Marshall, texted the Star’s Alex Boutilier to rub it in, echoing MacKay’s criticism of Scheer’s inability to win last year’s election: “Peter MacKay losing this leadership is like missing a shot on an empty net.”Still, MacKay supporters believed he represented a moderate voice of fiscal conservatism and was the only candidate capable of broadening the Conservative voting base to win a general election.They say his campaign had two weak spots: early on, MacKay said he wouldn’t roll back rights and would whip a vote on abortion, only to belatedly say he would allow free votes on matters of conscience. And while he mostly agreed to reverse Liberal gun controls enacted in Bill C-71, MacKay declined the gun lobby’s demand to remove the power to classify firearms (and designate certain weapons as prohibited) from the RCMP and give it back to cabinet, as Stephen Harper had once done.O’Toole’s campaign capitalized on that, drumming up support among gun clubs in Quebec, whose members turned out to vote for him, said a MacKay organizer.The source said O’Toole’s is a victory that stems from the power of special interest groups: just as Scheer’s 2017 leadership win owed a debt to anti-abortion voters and dairy farmers, O’Toole’s campaign owes its victory to socially conservative voters and gun owners, many in Quebec.Now that it’s over, the party and O’Toole must look forward.It’s hard to imagine MacKay running for a seat in Parliament under O’Toole’s leadership, although he said he would.It’s not clear what role Lewis will play in O’Toole’s plans for his office or campaign ahead. However the Liberal Party seems certain to pounce on the perception that O’Toole is indebted to social conservatives.Combined, Lewis and Sloan captured 35 per cent of the first-ballot points up for grabs. Lewis, a lawyer, party newcomer and political rookie, continued to hold strong, coming close to finishing second.Some of Lewis’s vote came from Conservatives who were excited about the potential of a Black woman to broaden the party’s appeal to a more urban and female audience.At a minimum, the strength of her showing means a reckoning to be had with the party’s socially conservative wing.Her campaign manager Steve Outhouse sees it differently.Outhouse says that over the course of the race, Lewis “went from being a ‘so-con candidate’ to being a leadership candidate who ha

Behind the scenes, Conservatives know that Erin O’Toole must make party unity his first priority

OTTAWA—“This is still a party that would rather fight than win.”

That was the raw feeling inside Peter MacKay’s camp on Monday morning, hours after the Conservative Party co-founder suffered a stinging defeat to Erin O’Toole in the party’s leadership contest.

Now that a hard-fought and at times nasty contest is over and O’Toole has taken the reins, what does the race and the results tell us about the DNA of the modern party?

Even that’s the subject of debate among partisans, yet a few threads emerge.

First, despite a call by O’Toole and outgoing leader Andrew Scheer for party unity, the current Conservative party has not yet moved past the contradictions or divisions of its past, and those old rivalries might yet confound the new leader.

Second, the strong showing of Leslyn Lewis and Derek Sloan, the two candidates who were unabashedly socially conservative and anti-abortion, shows a base of support that demands to be taken seriously by the party leader, and not merely pandered to.

Third, O’Toole’s courting of his anti-abortion rivals — and his belated declaration that he is personally pro-choice — leave the party open, once again, to Liberal accusations of a hidden agenda in the minds of some Conservatives.

O’Toole won with a convincing 57 per cent support on the third ballot. But it was a bruising race that has left hard feelings.

A MacKay campaign source who spoke on a background-only basis said that during the race, O’Toole remarked on more than one occasion to fellow Conservatives who did not support his leadership bid, “How are the backbenchers doing?”

It may have been a quip. Or a threat. But its meaning was clear: you’re with me or you’re against me. More MPs lined up behind MacKay than O’Toole. Now they wait to see how O’Toole will shape his team for the job ahead.

Party unity is imperative for O’Toole’s survival as leader, and for electoral success.

Yet the repudiation of the party’s co-founder was a profound personal blow to MacKay and his supporters.

MacKay was seen as the front-runner when he entered the leadership race. His campaign had early communications stumbles, but not ones that were necessarily fatal. Even up to last week, Conservative commentators believed it was his to lose.

But there was unquestionably a lingering sense that MacKay was a red Tory, too Eastern, too “old party establishment,” too PC, to carry the banner.

Alberta Premier Jason Kenny — a former cabinet colleague — backed O’Toole over MacKay, recording videos to support him. O’Toole played to that sentiment, calling MacKay “Liberal-lite.”

Late in the night, Andrew Scheer’s former campaign manager, Hamish Marshall, texted the Star’s Alex Boutilier to rub it in, echoing MacKay’s criticism of Scheer’s inability to win last year’s election: “Peter MacKay losing this leadership is like missing a shot on an empty net.”

Still, MacKay supporters believed he represented a moderate voice of fiscal conservatism and was the only candidate capable of broadening the Conservative voting base to win a general election.

They say his campaign had two weak spots: early on, MacKay said he wouldn’t roll back rights and would whip a vote on abortion, only to belatedly say he would allow free votes on matters of conscience. And while he mostly agreed to reverse Liberal gun controls enacted in Bill C-71, MacKay declined the gun lobby’s demand to remove the power to classify firearms (and designate certain weapons as prohibited) from the RCMP and give it back to cabinet, as Stephen Harper had once done.

O’Toole’s campaign capitalized on that, drumming up support among gun clubs in Quebec, whose members turned out to vote for him, said a MacKay organizer.

The source said O’Toole’s is a victory that stems from the power of special interest groups: just as Scheer’s 2017 leadership win owed a debt to anti-abortion voters and dairy farmers, O’Toole’s campaign owes its victory to socially conservative voters and gun owners, many in Quebec.

Now that it’s over, the party and O’Toole must look forward.

It’s hard to imagine MacKay running for a seat in Parliament under O’Toole’s leadership, although he said he would.

It’s not clear what role Lewis will play in O’Toole’s plans for his office or campaign ahead. However the Liberal Party seems certain to pounce on the perception that O’Toole is indebted to social conservatives.

Combined, Lewis and Sloan captured 35 per cent of the first-ballot points up for grabs. Lewis, a lawyer, party newcomer and political rookie, continued to hold strong, coming close to finishing second.

Some of Lewis’s vote came from Conservatives who were excited about the potential of a Black woman to broaden the party’s appeal to a more urban and female audience.

At a minimum, the strength of her showing means a reckoning to be had with the party’s socially conservative wing.

Her campaign manager Steve Outhouse sees it differently.

Outhouse says that over the course of the race, Lewis “went from being a ‘so-con candidate’ to being a leadership candidate who happened to be socially conservative … because she could clearly articulate her views on what she would or wouldn’t do.”

That works both ways, he said, and can be turned political advantage.

Rather than a “stick” that Liberals like to beat Conservatives with, Outhouse believes “the strongest position that we can take as a party is just the most democratic one … I think that was part of Leslyn’s appeal.”

“There is a political advantage of our party being the only big-tent party that will allow people to have different views on these difficult topics,” he said. “If we’re the only the party that allows them to talk about something that’s important to them, then we have an advantage that we should not give up with the electorate.”

Outhouse said the vote results show there are still “different corners of the Big Blue Tent.”

He said the party needs to make sure “the tent stays inclusive all of them.”

That was the intent of the Lewis campaign, he said.

“We need to put to bed this notion that we can’t win with social conservatives. What’s been shown repeatedly in both the 2017 race and now in this race is that the party can’t win without social conservatives. And we need to make sure that we respect each other’s views.”

All this matters because the party could be thrust into another general election within months, if not weeks.

Opposition parties might unite to vote non-confidence in the Liberals’ upcoming throne speech or economic measures to expand pandemic spending on an “ambitious” new agenda as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has promised.

So party unity is surely job number one for Erin O’Toole.

Tonda MacCharles is an Ottawa-based reporter covering federal politics for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @tondamacc

Source : Toronto Star More