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COMMENTARY: The Conservatives have a new leader in Erin O’Toole — let the games begin, but not yet

Click to play video 'Erin O’Toole delivers first speech as new Conservative Party leader | FULL' Erin O’Toole delivers first speech as new Conservative Party leader | FULL
During his victory speech, new Conservative leader Erin O'Toole expressed his gratitude for his party, his family, and for Canadians who voted for him – and stated that he has been given a mission, which is to “champion” Conservative principles. He also took aim at Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, stating that in his opinion Trudeau is “failing our great country.”

The next federal election started in the wee hours of Monday with the election of Durham MP Erin O’Toole as the new leader of the Conservative Party.

With all the major players now in place, it is only a matter of time until Canadians are asked to vote again in a national election — pandemic be damned.

READ MORE: A look at new Conservative leader Erin O’Toole and what he is promising

Last week, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau moved to take control of both the timing and narrative of the coming federal election by proroguing Parliament and setting the stage for a new Speech From the Throne. When Parliament returns in a month’s time, the prime minister has signalled that his government will reveal a transformational plan chock full of new program and spending ideas to “Build Back Better,” a slogan purloined from the U.S. Democrats he is already road-testing.

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This kicks off a game of chicken in which the prime minister will dare the opposition parties to bring down his government by voting against a brighter future the Liberals say only their plan and leadership can deliver.

While strange things can happen in Parliament, I wouldn’t bet on an election being triggered by this trap. It simply isn’t in the interest of the opposition parties to go now.

The key is in the polling. Yes, the Liberals have been brought back to the pack by the WE Charity scandal, but they still lead all parties in voter support. Even more important, their approval rating is at a strong 50 per cent. This is much better than the low 40s, where they started the last election from.

Bottom line, the Liberals are still well-positioned to win an election if it were held in the near term.

Click to play video 'Erin O’Toole becomes new Conservative Party leader, wins on third ballot' Erin O’Toole becomes new Conservative Party leader, wins on third ballot
Erin O’Toole becomes new Conservative Party leader, wins on third ballot

Therefore, we should expect one or more of the opposition parties to break ranks and support the Government’s Speech From the Throne. Yes, they could extract a price for doing so, just as NDP leader Jack Layton did to keep Paul Martin’s dying Liberal minority government alive for a brief time. But even if the government wins the vote on the Speech From the Throne, all is not lost for the opposition parties. Whichever party votes with the Liberals can claim a victory as Layton did. But the other opposition parties will benefit, too. They still get to oppose the Speech From the Throne without triggering an election.

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Not having an election allows more time for the WE Charity scandal to do its work. It is clearly responsible for the decline in the polls the Liberal Party is experiencing. However, it has not had the same depth of impact as the SNC-Lavalin scandal had prior to the last election.

Today, voter reaction to the WE scandal could best be described as disappointment, rather than white-hot anger. And most voters (62 per cent) are prepared to accept the government’s apology and move on. After all, we are dealing with a pandemic and Canadians are laser-focused on getting their country and economy back on track. Political scandals in Ottawa are a distraction to this.

READ MORE: Erin O’Toole is the new leader of the Conservative Party, wins on third ballot

However, delaying the election gets the House committees rolling again — especially those investigating the WE scandal. It also allows time for the Ethics Commissioner to issue his reports related to WE Charity. If the last few weeks of leaks and testimony are any indication, there’s more to come. While the WE Charity situation may not be fatal, it continues to remind Canadians of what they like least about the Trudeau Liberals.

Where is O’Toole in all of this? While there will be many demands on his time from Ottawa, his first job will be bringing his party back together after a divisive leadership race. While one campaign won, three others lost. We saw what happened to the second-place finisher, Maxime Bernier, in the last Conservative leadership contest. Preventing this from happening again will be one of the first and most important tests the new leader faces.

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Next, there will be intense scrutiny from media and Canadians on the new Conservative leader. These early days are critical because Canadians don’t have a well-developed view of who O’Toole is and what he stands for. First impressions tend to be lasting impressions. As the new leader tries to introduce himself to the wider Canadian electorate, the Liberal Party and its proxies will be working mightily to cast him as a “New Trump North.” How will O’Toole and the Conservatives respond to what is sure to come? He will need an answer and fast.

Click to play video 'New Conservative Party leader Erin O’Toole' New Conservative Party leader Erin O’Toole
New Conservative Party leader Erin O’Toole

Part of the Trump North attack will be directed at social conservatives in the Conservative Party. After Sunday’s voting, there’s no doubt that social conservatives are an important part of the Conservative Party membership and voter base. The strong performance of both the Lewis and Sloan campaigns are the proof. To win over social conservatives in the later ballots that got O’Toole his victory, he had to appeal directly to them during the campaign.

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Opponents will line up what O’Toole said to social conservatives to brand the new CPC leader before he can brand himself. This is a big part of the “demonize the Conservatives, marginalize the NDP” (plus Greens and BQ, if possible) strategy that is key to so many Liberal Party victories of the past. Like the leadership ballots, it’s in the mail.

For those who followed the saga of Andrew Scheer’s failed campaign in 2019, there’s one important factor that will be different this time for O’Toole. That is the role played by Ontario Premier Doug Ford.

In the last election, the Trudeau Liberals used Premier Ford as their perfect foil to define what Ontario suburban voters should expect from a Scheer-led Conservative Government. That was enough to swing about 10 per cent of the vote in the 905 area surrounding Toronto. That swing gave the Trudeau Liberals the seats they needed for a minority victory, even though they lost the national popular vote to the Conservatives.

Premier Ford’s role will be different this time. His leadership through the pandemic has now raised his potential from one-term disappointment to near invincibility if an election were held tomorrow. The role Ford could play in the next federal election is critical to its outcome. It’s not necessary for O’Toole to be endorsed by fellow conservative Ford for Ford to help him (although O’Toole would greatly appreciate a Ford endorsement).

If the Liberals can’t use Ford as their proxy for O’Toole as they did for Scheer, their ability to sweep the 905 just got a whole lot harder. If the 905 switches from the Liberals to the Conservatives in whole or in significant part, we will likely be waking up the next day to an O’Toole government.

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Darrell Bricker, CEO Ipsos Public Affairs and author of NEXT: Where to Live, What to Buy, and Who Will Lead Canada’s Future (Harper Collins, 2020).