Analysis: Five takeaways from Erin O’Toole’s Conservative party leadership win

The conventional wisdom is that O’Toole has a mandate to unite the party, but the Conservatives are as divided as ever

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      The Conservative Party of Canada’s new leader Erin O’Toole will hold a press conference tomorrow “to outline his positive Conservative vision to unite Canadians and defeat Justin Trudeau.” That’s what the press release from party headquarters issued Monday afternoon states.

      The newly-elected Conservative leader, criticized for being “angry” during the leadership campaign, has adopted a new tone.

      In his acceptance speech delivered in the early hours Monday morning he pledged to “continue to point out Liberal failings and corruption but show Canadians our vision for a stronger, prosperous and more united Canada.”

      Making clear what he stands for will become a trickier proposition now that he has to convince Canadians, not just party members, that he’s the best person to lead the country.

      On that front, O’Toole has work to do if he doesn’t want his leadership to be a case of the more things change the more they stay the same.

      Here are five takeaways from the race.

      The candidate with the best campaign won—but not necessarily the best candidate

      Despite Peter MacKay’s star power, it was O’Toole who raised the most money and who had the better marketing and communications team. That was big in Ontario, where Jeff Ballingall and his Ontario Proud team managed to pull more support than expected.

      O’Toole also did a better job than MacKay in managing expectations, which weren’t high to begin with for him. They were for MacKay, who never quite lived up to the front-runner status with a number of gaffes early in the campaign. “The candidate with the best campaign won,” says one Conservative insider.

      But whether O’Toole is the best candidate to beat Justin Trudeau in an election is a different question. The Liberals are divided on that. To his detractors, O’Toole looks old in comparison to Trudeau. But history tells us that when Conservatives win elections in Canada, it usually has more to do with fatigue with the governing Liberals than who the party’s leader is.

      The Conservatives are as divided as ever

      O’Toole played the role of centrist while claiming to be the only “true blue” Conservative in the race—as opposed to MacKay’s “Liberal lite.” The conventional wisdom is that O’Toole has a mandate to unite the party, having garnered 57 percent of the vote. He did well in Alberta, Ontario and Quebec. But the party’s base is still very much in Alberta.

      O’Toole also takes over a caucus that strongly supported MacKay. MacKay, who got 43 percent of the vote, collected some 43 endorsements from MPs to O’Toole’s 38.

      And then there are the social conservatives in the party’s base that supported Leslyn Lewis and Derek Sloan in bigger than expected numbers. Many of them had O’Toole, who openly wooed SoCon voters late in the race, as their second choice in the ranked ballot voting. What will be the quid pro quo for their support? We’ll soon find out.

      But with anti-vaxxer and COVID-conspiracy theorist Sloan tallying 15 percent of the vote, you can bet it won’t be good for a party that the last election showed desperately needs to modernize.

      Leslyn Lewis had us all fooled

      The only woman and person of colour in the race almost pulled off a massive upset, winning in Saskatchewan and performing well in Alberta, B.C., Manitoba, and Ontario. She tallied some 30 percent of the vote finishing just behind O’Toole on the second ballot.

      It’s a remarkable story for someone who up until she ran for the leadership had next to zero political experience. She was parachuted to run for the Conservatives in 2015 in Scarborough-Rouge River. That was after the candidate there got caught on video peeing in a mug in a constituent’s kitchen.

      Before that, she fundraised for former Harper-era class clown Paul Calandra. Lewis made no bones about here religious views and opposition to abortion during the campaign. Her candidacy was endorsed by Campaign Life. She also made “political correctness” a hallmark of her campaign.

      But she is as conservative as they come. She’s opposed to the Liberals’ firearms ban, carbon tax, and inclusion of gender expression in the human rights code, as well as the banning of conversion therapy.

      But she was able to put enough of a veneer on her views to sell herself as reasonable conservative. Far from it. If anything, she’s an expression of how sophisticated the SoCon faction of the party has become.

      “They realize that they’re not going to win what they want with chest-thumping,” offers one Liberal observer. “They have to do it by stealth.”

      The ghost of Stephen Harper looms large

      The former PM and party leader was not as visible in this race as he was when he helped his protege Andrew Scheer win on the final ballot in 2016. But his shadow loomed large.

      Harp was among the first to take to Twitter to congratulate “my friend and longtime colleague Erin O’Toole” on his win. “More than ever the country needs a strong, united #CPC_HQ” ready to form government,” wrote Harper.

      No doubt, Harper couldn’t be happier. The last thing he wanted was MacKay at the helm. In fact, Harper quit as chair of the party’s fundraising arm, the Conservative Fund, in January to free himself to foil the bid of another “progressive” conservative—Jean Charest.

      The former PC leader and Quebec (Liberal) premier was contemplating a run. He had reportedly sought the blessing of Harper but dropped out citing “deep changes” in the party.

      Andrew Scheer hasn’t learned his lesson from the last election loss

      The outgoing Conservative leader was entrusted with delivering the night’s keynote. But rather than talking about the challenges that lie ahead for the party, Scheer let loose with a tone-deaf screed. He attacked “the mainstream media,” compared the Left in Canada to the “Soviet Bloc” and chastised “liberals…who put all their faith in government.” Conservatives, on the other hand, are beacons of “freedom and liberty. No one ever got shot trying to get into East Berlin,” Scheer said.

      It was quite something. And markedly out of touch coming from someone who hasn’t held a job outside politics his entire adult life. Perhaps he hasn’t noticed that we’re in the middle of a global pandemic.