Erin O’Toole was elected Conservative Party leader on Aug. 24, 2020. Less than 18 months later, it’s over.
After a disappointing showing in last September’s federal election, the relationship between O’Toole and his Conservative caucus had become strained.
Some wanted him to resign immediately. Others, like Sen. Denise Batters, preferred to hold a referendum on his leadership. She circulated a petition stating he had “flip-flopped on policies core to our party, within the same week, the same day, and even within the same sentence.”
O’Toole was furious and removed Batters from the national caucus, although she remains a member of the Senate Conservative caucus.
Thirty-five signatures were collected by Jan. 31 to hold a leadership review, which is similar to the leadership spill model regularly used in Australia and the United Kingdom. Several reporters, including the Globe and Mail’s Robert Fife, suggested the actual number could be as high as 63.
The final count was even worse.
O’Toole lost the Feb. 2 secret vote by 73-45. As outlined in the guidelines of the Reform Act, he was automatically removed as party leader for exceeding the 50 per cent plus one rule. Candice Bergen, minister of state for Social Development under former prime minister Stephen Harper, was elected interim leader later that evening.
A leadership race is beginning to evolve. Conservative MP and former cabinet minister Pierre Poilievre, who I endorsed in the National Post last week, was first out of the gates. Other names being floated include former Conservative cabinet minister Peter MacKay, former Conservative interim leader Rona Ambrose, Ontario Premier Doug Ford, Brampton, Ont. Mayor Patrick Brown and National Post columnist Tasha Kheiriddin.
There will be a full slate of candidates in due course. Once that happens, it will be up to Conservative party members to decide on a new leader, vision and direction. A garden variety of influencers, intellectuals and talking heads, including from the worlds of academia and media, will frequently add their two cents, too.
I’ll be part of the latter group.
The initial question to be considered is both the most obvious and difficult: Where do the Conservatives go from here?
There are several possibilities I’ve outlined over the years and I’ll highlight three of them here:
First, Conservatives must ensure core values like fiscal conservatism and prudent social spending remain a permanent component of the ideological mindset.
Policies geared toward small government, low taxes, private enterprise, trade liberalization and a free market economy must be emphasized. Individual rights and freedoms must be continually championed by the new leader.
Public social services like health care, education and housing should be defended, but a role for private providers should also be part of the long-term plan.
A more muscular foreign policy plan to make Canada a leader, and not a follower, would be a welcome relief from Liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s permanent seat at the kiddie table.
Second, incremental conservatism remains the most logical and realistic way for Conservatives to win elections and re-elect governments.
Originally coined by University of Calgary professor Tom Flanagan, incremental conservatism was a means of “endorsing even very small steps if they are in the right direction, and accepting inaction in areas that can’t feasibly be changed right now, but opposing government initiatives that are clearly going the wrong way.”
It’s a political model that Harper successfully used to win three straight elections (2006, 2008 and 2011) and emphasized as prime minister from 2006 to 2015. It also helped create a proper balance of fiscal and social conservative policies for the party and country. Any message that resonated with the party faithful as well as average Canadians should always be utilized – and never abandoned.
Third, borrow concepts and strategies from different right-leaning parties and leaders to help re-energize the Canadian conservative movement.
U.S. Republicans have historically fought against high taxes, government regulation and intervention, and for more freedom, liberty and democracy. U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s one-nation ideology, a paternalistic model of conservatism that promotes democratic institutions and traditional principles, and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s pragmatic conservatism to give moderates and social conservatives a true voice in the decision-making process could be helpful, too.
Inspiration could also come from other sources. Late U.S. President Ronald Reagan and late U.K. prime minister Margaret Thatcher championed individual freedom and rejected big government and state intrusion. Former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney’s coalition of red and blue Tories created two straight majority governments for the federal Progressive Conservatives. Even former U.S. President Donald Trump’s strategy of rebuilding old ties between the Republicans and working class should be considered.
There are many more questions that need to be asked. I’ll get to them, one by one.
Michael Taube, a Troy Media syndicated columnist and Washington Times contributor, was a speechwriter for former prime minister Stephen Harper. He holds a master’s degree in comparative politics from the London School of Economics.