A “handful” of Conservative MPs remain unvaccinated against COVID-19, multiple sources tell Global News, setting up a potential showdown with their Commons colleagues when Parliament returns next month.
It’s not clear whether party brass know exactly which MPs have opted not to get vaccinated, or precisely how many have not had the shots. Some MPs flatly refused to tell the party leadership one way or another during the recent federal election campaign.
And the party has refused — both during the election and afterwards — to publicly disclose how many candidates and MPs refuse to be vaccinated.
But three plugged-in Tory sources told Global News the current assumption is between three and five MPs remain largely unprotected against the deadly virus.
That’ll be an issue if those MPs want to take their seats in the House of Commons when Parliament returns in late November. Speaker Anthony Rota announced earlier this week only fully vaccinated people will be permitted in the House of Commons precinct.
“I think everyone should be vaccinated. It doesn’t make a lot of sense to me,” said one vaccinated and frustrated MP, who spoke to Global News on the condition they not be named.
The MP said they suspect that if the Liberals and New Democrats want to continue “hybrid” sittings of the House of Commons, where MPs can participate via teleconferencing, it would give unvaccinated politicians an out.
“But there have been MPs who have deemed virtual Parliament not to be sufficient, and have shown up to exercise their right to be in Parliament … I think that could be a challenge (for the party).”
Tensions within the Conservative party on the vaccination issue came up at a caucus committee meeting last week, when Michelle Rempel Garner — the party’s shadow minister for health — updated MPs on the issue, sources said. Rempel Garner presented on how the COVID-19 pandemic has evolved since Parliament last sat, and stressed the importance of vaccines.
Conservative whip Blake Richards has said the party will not support continuing the “hybrid” House of Commons under any circumstances. The Banff-Airdrie MP has also criticized the decision, made by the all-party Board of Internal Economy, to permit only vaccinated people into the House of Commons precinct.
At the same time, Richards maintained this week that the party will continue to follow “all public health guidelines” as the pandemic persists. Richards did not respond to requests for comment Thursday or Friday.
Those three positions, taken together, put the Conservative party and leader Erin O’Toole in a very difficult spot.
O’Toole is trying to hold on to the party leadership after last month’s disappointing election loss, which saw the Conservatives lose seats and lose ground in key suburban and urban ridings. Over the last month, he’s been holding meetings with MPs and party stalwarts in an attempt to convince them to stay the course.
Speaking to TVO this week, O’Toole said the party would respect the decision by the Board of Internal Economy on mandatory vaccinations for MPs in the House.
“The (Board of Internal Economy), the Speaker … has decided, and Conservatives, as we always have, will respect all public health guidelines, including in our own conduct as members of Parliament,” O’Toole told the Ontario network earlier this week.
“The BOIE and the Speaker has ruled, and we will respect that.”
Asked if that means O’Toole would forbid his unvaccinated MPs from returning to Ottawa, a senior Conservative source told Global News that “it’s up to the Commons to make the rules … so that’s probably what (O’Toole’s) position will be.”
But Mathew Clancy, O’Toole’s director of media relations, clarified Friday that while O’Toole respects the decision, he does “not accept that the BOIE has the jurisdiction to infringe on a member’s right to take their seat in the House of Commons.”
If it truly is only a “handful” of Conservative MPs that remain unvaccinated, O’Toole could afford to lose them without changing the fundamental makeup of the House of Commons. Another conservative leader, Ontario Premier Doug Ford, made that calculation earlier in August when he booted MPP Rick Nicholls from the Progressive Conservative caucus over his refusal to show proof of vaccination.
Unlike Ford, however, O’Toole is facing serious discontent within his own caucus after last month’s election loss. And that caucus holds his political fate in their hands, after giving themselves the power to launch a leadership review.
That dynamic extends beyond just the vaccination issue.
“Erin is in this, you know, nightmare scenario where … doing what he wants to do requires pissing off caucus and he can’t piss off caucus,” said one connected Conservative insider, who agreed to speak to Global News on the condition they not be named.
“Besides throwing someone out of shadow cabinet, how can he discipline someone? He can’t throw them out of the caucus. And unless it’s for an extremely obvious thing, caucus isn’t going to vote to get rid of them.”
Pollster Greg Lyle told Global News that the Conservative position on vaccinations — to encourage people to get them, but to oppose vaccine mandates in favour of offering a rapid testing option — hurt the party during the election, and remains an ongoing headache for O’Toole.
“The numbers are absolutely clear that one of the main things that stopped them from gaining ground was their position on the vaccinations,” Lyle said in an interview.
“The thing that I thought was really devastating was the Liberals ability to say, you know, Erin O’Toole says he wants to convince hesitant people to get the vaccination, but he can’t even convince his own caucus.”
The political pressure on O’Toole over vaccinations is unlikely to subside any time soon. Speaking to reporters Thursday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said it’s on O’Toole to explain “why he thinks people should not be fully vaccinated if they want to serve as members of Parliament.”
“It is puzzling to me that there are people out there who think that just because they are members of Parliament they do not need to keep themselves, their loved ones or their constituents safe when the vast majority of Canadians have done the right thing,” Trudeau said in Ottawa.
“It seems a very small thing that what we’re asking every Canadian who wants to go into a restaurant in Ontario, for example, where the House of Commons sits, to be fully vaccinated, we should be asking the same thing of members of Parliament as well. It’s not too much to ask.”
— with files from the Canadian Press.