Erin O’Toole needs to tell conservatives why he deserves to stay

Conservative leader Erin O’Toole has made it clear he’ll kick anyone who questions his leadership out of caucus, but he’s yet to tell conservative Canadians why he deserves to stick around as leader.

The base’s patience seems to be wearing thin.

Conservative senator – well, former Conservative senator – Denise Batters launched a petition this week for party members to trigger a referendum on O’Toole’s leadership ahead of the scheduled review nearly two years from now.

In response, O’Toole, who was elected leader in part due to his stated commitment to letting caucus members speak their minds, kicked Batters out of caucus and threatened to do the same to any other MP “who's not putting the team and the country first.”

It’s been nearly two months since the election that sent Justin Trudeau back to Ottawa with a minority government. Since then, O’Toole has not wanted to address any of the things that may have contributed to the Conservative loss – flip-flopping on key policies, not preparing for a PPC surge, alienating parts of the party’s base. Any time O’Toole has faced questions about these, he’s just pledged to pay attention to the campaign review underway by defeated Conservative MP James Cumming.

Has he nothing to say in the meantime?

O’Toole’s primary arguments in defence of his leadership are that there could be another election at any moment (the election readiness thesis), and that the Conservatives made significant gains in the last election (the “we won” thesis).

The former is true, though this is an argument for expediting, not delaying, a review.

The second point is simply laughable.

The Liberals gained seats, and the Conservatives lost seats. While everyone enjoys a rousing chorus of “but the popular vote,” as though that’s a relevant metric in Canadian politics, a loss is a loss.

The Conservatives have yet to truly concede defeat.

In his statement announcing Batters’ expulsion from caucus, O’Toole said “Canadians elected Conservatives to hold Justin Trudeau accountable,” as though one is “elected” to opposition rather than winding up there because someone else won the election.

Half an hour before sending out the statement, O’Toole posted a photo of him and a handful of his MPs chatting it up on Parliament Hill, with the caption “Our team is focused on getting Canada back on track. Let's get to work.”

Translation: “Nothing to see here. Everything is fine.”

Whether this is hubris or obliviousness, neither seems to be all that useful.

O’Toole’s shift from a “true blue” leadership candidate to a centrist general election candidate has been well documented. O’Toole tried to preempt some of the expected attacks ahead of the campaign by proposing a carbon tax plan and avowing his pro-choice bona fides. He also released the Conservatives’ platform on the first full day of the campaign, so his plan would be in full view and not subject to any “hidden agenda” attacks.

Mind you, having policies in writing hardly protected them. As the Globe and Mail’s Robyn Urback put it:

If Erin O’Toole’s position on vaccine mandates, conscience rights, guns, defunding the CBC and carbon taxes is any indication, his expulsion of Senator Denise Batters from the Conservative caucus should last only a few days.

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I’ve been deliberately non-committal on whether O’Toole deserves another kick at the can as this is something only Conservative members can decide. I will, however, offer some unsolicited advice.

If O’Toole’s run to the centre was done solely for votes, he needs to tell conservatives what makes him think it will work next time. If it was done because that’s where O’Toole actually sits on the political spectrum, he needs to account for what changed between the leadership race and the election.

His silence on anything of substance since the election may well be because he knows there is no justification, at least none that will allay the base’s concerns.

My friend Mark Steyn has pointed out on a number of occasions that it’s easier for the base to get itself a new leader than for the leader to get himself a new base. O’Toole’s aversion to having a timely review of his leadership may well be rooted in a fear that he wouldn’t survive it.

Were O’Toole confident about his place in the party – among the members, not his caucus – he would be welcoming a renewed mandate with open arms. It’s telling he’s not.

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