O’Toole to move quickly to put stamp on federal Conservative party
Pulling together the team he'll have around him on the front benches in the House of Commons this fall
OTTAWA — It took Erin O’Toole less than 12 hours to go from winning the Conservative leadership race early Aug. 24 to taking his seat behind the boss’s desk in the Official Opposition office, moving swiftly to begin building a team to guide his party in the months ahead.
O’Toole’s first order of business was setting in motion staffing changes. That is likely to involve bringing in some of his campaign team to oversee operations and strategy on Parliament Hill, while others take up senior roles within the party.
Next, turning to his 121-member Conservative caucus to pull together the team he’ll have around him on the front benches in the House of Commons this fall.
By midday, O’Toole had already spoken to his main rival in Parliament, a call both Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s office and O’Toole’s described as cordial and covered topics both personal and political, including western alienation.
According to a statement from O’Toole, the party wants to see a plan in Trudeau’s upcoming throne speech to directly address the issue. That the Tories would advocate for more action from the Liberals on that front was a key ask by Alberta MPs during the leadership campaign.
O’Toole did not speak to the media, but will hold a news conference Aug. 25 to outline some of his plans.
Picking his team in the Commons will be a delicate task. He will need to ensure his rivals’ supporters still feel welcome, but also give prominence to those who backed him during the often acrimonious campaign.
Party members overall delivered a solid victory to O’Toole in the race, ultimately handing him 57% of the vote, after three rounds of counting that stretched into the early hours Aug. 25.
Peter MacKay finished second with 43%, a blow to many on his campaign team who had paraded around the Ottawa hotel that was their headquarters Sunday, boasting of their get-out-the-vote efforts.
“I feel we ran a valiant and high-road campaign,” MacKay, who returned to Toronto Monday, said in a post on social media.
“It was an amazing experience, though not the result we hoped for. I now get to focus on family and future forms of a public service.”
The announcement of the winner was delayed by technical problems Sunday, as thousands of ballots had to be replicated by hand after the counting machine partially shredded them.
Conservative party spokesman Cory Hann said the party will review the issue as part of their election post-mortem.
Hann said part of the hours-long delay was also due to COVID-19 restrictions, as the party couldn’t send in more volunteers and scrutineers to handle the ballots after the machine errors.
Hann said he did not expect any of the campaigns to say it was an unfair process.
There was quickly a campaign, however, to try and take jabs at O’Toole, though not one launched by his rivals in this race.
Conservative MP Maxime Bernier, who finished second in the 2017 race, when O’Toole finished third, was the one who came out swinging as he sought to recruit disaffected Tories into his own political party.
Bernier accused O’Toole of wearing a “true blue” mask during the leadership campaign and warned that he is really “Liberal-lite,” offering a political home in his People’s Party of Canada for those who wanted a different approach.
Bernier broke from caucus after his 2017 loss and efforts by former leader Andrew Scheer to keep him onside failed.
O’Toole, on the other hand, was kept close by Scheer and handed the plum foreign affairs portfolio.
Though MacKay isn’t in caucus himself, O’Toole will need to extend an olive branch to those who supported him.
But several high-profile Conservatives who had backed O’Toole in 2017 threw their lot in with MacKay this time around. Whether O’Toole will reward or shun them remains an open question.
There are also the MPs who remained neutral, including Alberta MP Michelle Rempel Garner and Ottawa MP Pierre Poilievre, both beloved by many of the rank-and-file party members.
O’Toole needs to find a spot for everyone, said Garry Keller, who worked with Rona Ambrose when she was interim leader of the party.
“Idle hands are not helping whoever wins the leadership.”
Also key — finding a place for Leslyn Lewis, the first Black woman to ever run for leadership of the party, and whose climb from political newcomer to a third-place finish cemented the power of social conservatives in the party. On the second ballot, she even won the popular vote.
Lewis had the express support of seven MPs in caucus, but there are others who have previously aligned with social conservative causes who did remain on the sidelines, including Alberta’s Rachael Harder.
Lewis declined an interview. She has said she would run for the party no matter what in the next election.
On the flip side, Keller said, O’Toole will have to figure out what to do with Derek Sloan, who finished last out of the four leadership candidates.
The rookie MP was nearly kicked out of caucus during the campaign after a furor around remarks he made about chief public health officer Dr. Theresa Tam. He’s also been crudely outspoken on issues around abortion and LGBTQ conversion therapy.
O’Toole was one of Sloan’s lone supporters during the fight over his spot in caucus. He’s also promised to respect and listen to the voices of everyone in the party, no matter their political leanings.