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O’Toole’s leadership ‘untenable’ and dividing his caucus, say dissident MPs

The Tory caucus will decide Wednesday whether to endorse his leadership or show him the door

Stephanie Taylor, The Canadian Press

Conservative MPs are picking their sides — and bracing for any consequences that may follow — while Erin O’Toole waits to learn his fate as party leader.

The 118 other MPs in the Tory caucus will decide Wednesday whether to endorse his leadership or show him the door. It comes after at least one-third of his MPs requested the caucus chair hold a leadership review, following weeks of anger and dissatisfaction building behind closed doors.

Alberta MP Garnett Genuis, who was among the signatories, says he expects the vote will lead to new leadership that brings better vision and unity to the party. 

“The leader’s position is untenable,” he told reporters before entering the House of Commons on Tuesday. 

“We’re not seeing what we need to from the leadership.”

Genuis declined to elaborate, saying those conversations are best left for caucus members only. 

As for what changed since last fall, when Genuis called for Conservatives to unite behind O’Toole following its election defeat, the MP said many were willing to give him a chance, but a lot has happened since. 

He didn’t provide details, but some of the major points of contention were outlined by fellow Alberta MP Bob Benzen. 

On Monday evening, Benzen issued a statement saying the caucus must vote on O’Toole’s leadership because the leader refused to take a tougher stand against a controversial secularism law in Quebec or clearly defend Canadians’ freedoms throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Nearly 24 hours later, the MP issued another statement, saying O’Toole’s plan to fight for his job confirmed his “worst fears.”

In a social media post, O’Toole said the party was faced with two paths. He painted his dissenters as believing it should hold more extreme views resembling those of Ontario MPP Randy Hillier and ex-MP Derek Sloan.

That’s in contrast with what O’Toole says he is trying to build with a more inclusive and moderate brand of conservatism.

In his own response, Benzen said he agrees with O’Toole that the party faces two paths: staying united as one Conservative party or splitting back into two parties as it was before the merger between the Canadian Alliance and Progressive Conservative Party. 

“Rather than humbly admitting his mistakes and correcting course, Mr. O’Toole is doubling down — launching attacks and threatening “consequences” against any MP who dares dissent,” Benzen said. 

“Even if Mr. O’Toole wins the vote on Wednesday, the Conservative party and its grassroots supporters across the country will lose. A house divided against itself cannot stand.”

He says that in the event O’Toole “squeaks out a victory,” he expects to be removed from caucus, which is the risk the former supporter says he’s willing to take.  

Key players in O’Toole’s leadership vote.

Garnett Genuis— The Alberta MP is one of the signatories to a letter endorsed by around one−third of O’Toole’s 118−member caucus who want him removed as leader. Genuis, who O’Toole picked to serve as his critic for international development and human rights, initially urged Conservatives to rally behind the leader after last year’s election loss. Now, he says, that’s changed. 

Sen. Denise Batters— The longtime Conservative launched a petition last November for party members to sign if they wanted to see O’Toole’s leadership reviewed earlier than the scheduled date of 2023. Batters said O’Toole flip−flopped on party policies around gun control and the carbon tax, which made him untrustworthy to Canadians. O’Toole then removed her from his national caucus, but both the Tory Senate caucus and Saskatchewan regional caucus decided she could stay, highlighting the rifts he faces.

Shannon Stubbs — Last fall, the Alberta MP called for O’Toole’s leadership to be reviewed by members within six months because of changes he was making to the party. She said her share of the vote dropped in last year’s election and wanted to see O’Toole outline how he would keep traditional Conservative voters in the fold who feel alienated by promises he made around spending. 

Mark Strahl — The British Columbia MP and former Tory whip has publicly criticized O’Toole for not being consistent in his messages around vaccine mandates, which is something other critics of his have echoed. O’Toole has been under pressure from Strahl along with other MPs to adopt a tougher stand against a controversial secularism law in Quebec. 

Pierre Poilievre — The high−profile finance critic and Ottawa−area MP is regarded as a possible next in line for party leader if O’Toole loses the leadership vote. After last year’s election Poilivere said the party already had a leader and he had no interest in running. However, he is deeply popular among the Conservative grassroots. In 2020, Poilivere planned to enter the party’s leadership race that O’Toole eventually won, but he pulled out before an official launch saying the race would take away time spent with his young family. 

On Tuesday, both deputy leader Candice Bergen and Tim Uppal, the Conservatives’ chair of outreach, expressed support for O’Toole keeping his job. 

Nova Scotia MP Dr. Stephen Ellis, who O’Toole tapped to help develop his COVID-19 policies, said he not only supports the leader, but believes he has the votes necessary to survive. 

Ellis added he believes that had the leadership review not been thrust upon him by his MPs, O’Toole would have called the question himself. 

Conservative labour critic and Ontario MP Scott Aitchison said he supports O’Toole staying as leader as long as the members decide to keep him. 

If O’Toole loses the vote in caucus, which will be done through a secret ballot, he would be the first leader ousted under the Reform Act, legislation that was passed in 2015 that empowers a party’s caucus to trigger a leadership review. 

Tory activist Fraser Macdonald is among Conservatives who feel members will have a chance to have their say about O’Toole’s leadership in 2023 when a review is scheduled as part of the party’s national convention. 

At least three riding associations have challenged that date, and are petitioning the party’s national council to have one no later than mid-June. 

Macdonald, who endorsed O’Toole in the 2020 leadership contest, has launched a group called Majority Committee, which he said had been in the works before the challenge to O’Toole’s leadership.

He said for him what’s at stake is the direction of the party. Macdonald said it’s only those who are angry with O’Toole and his move to moderate party policies whose voices are being heard.

“My concern is that the party changes its strategy and moves more in a direction where we’re listening to one wing of the party over others,” he said Tuesday. 

“Erin O’Toole’s strategy is 100 per cent correct. We need to appeal to mainstream Canadians, and be able to win in places like the (Greater Toronto Area).”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 1, 2022

feature image – The Canadian Press