Erin O’Toole’s grip over the Conservative caucus will face a crucial test next week as the party prepares for a pre-parliament strategy session.
And Conservative insiders — including some of O’Toole’s own supporters — worry the Conservative leader’s hold over the party is even more tenuous than in the immediate aftermath of last year’s disappointing election results.
Next week’s meeting is expected to include the findings of former MP James Cumming’s report into O’Toole’s 2021 campaign. O’Toole selected Cumming — who lost his Edmonton Centre seat in that campaign — to review the party’s campaign strategy, data game and leader’s tour.
The Conservatives have not met as a group since a fractious caucus meeting in late December, where sources tell Global News that Quebec’s ban on religious symbols for public employees, MPs’ travel during the Omicron wave and the party’s position on lockdowns were discussed.
The December meeting was described as a “bloodbath” in the Toronto Star — a description Conservatives with knowledge of the meeting begrudgingly admit was accurate.
“There’s been no leadership from (O’Toole) for months,” one exasperated MP told Global News in an interview.
Global granted the MP — as well as others who spoke for this article — anonymity, in order to speak freely about internal party dynamics and closed-door caucus conversations.
“He’s had sporadic moments of trying to do different things. But that caucus meeting … just demonstrated, I think, to the entire caucus that he no longer is the leader and that caucus is the leader. And if caucus sticks together, then the leader will do what he’s told,” the MP added.
“It’s not sustainable. It’s not a sustainable relationship.”
While they’ve been quiet publicly, there remains an active anti-O’Toole faction within the Conservative caucus that believe his leadership is unsalvageable. That faction has been hesitant to speak out publicly, although a source close to O’Toole said they know which MPs have been rabble rousing.
And while the anti-O’Toole faction haven’t taken their frustrations public, O’Toole and his team seem reluctant to publicly take dissenting MPs on.
O’Toole expelled Sen. Denise Batters from the party’s national caucus after she fronted a petition to accelerate the party’s leadership review, currently scheduled for 2023. Despite her ouster, Batters remains a member of the party’s Senate caucus. On Friday, the Hill Times reported Saskatchewan MPs voted to include Batters in their regional caucus discussions — in direct defiance of O’Toole’s expulsion.
Global News has not confirmed the Hill Times’ report, and Batters’ office directed questions to MP Kevin Waugh, the regional caucus chair for Saskatchewan.
O’Toole is not without allies in caucus, including two who called up Global News after O’Toole’s office was asked to comment for this article.
The MP agreed next week’s caucus retreat will be an important test for O’Toole’s leadership, but took aim at the faction in caucus pushing for “perpetual leadership” races.
The knock from O’Toole’s detractors was that he was not listening to caucus, the MP said, and now the MPs are complaining that the leader is following caucus’ direction.
“They’re doing these tactics because I think this is the only tool they have available to them,” the second MP said.
“I think they know they’re in the minority, I think they know that people see them just as disturbers stirring the pot … They’re not calling a question (on O’Toole’s leadership) because there’s not the (number of MPs) to do it, and they would no way win anything.”
Still, O’Toole faces a considerable amount of frustration both within caucus and in the wider conservative movement.
“People are really f—ing p—-d off,” one Conservative insider told Global News, speaking specifically about that December caucus meeting.
“People are going to continue to test boundaries. And at some point, someone will go too far. Either someone will test O’Toole too far or he’ll overreact.”
Even some longtime O’Toole supporters are expressing frustration with a perceived lack of action from the leaders’ office to mend bridges after September’s election loss.
One source said that the Office of the Leader of the Opposition (OLO) is more consumed with attempting to ferret out who is leaking to reporters than salvaging O’Toole’s leadership.
The source said the “inertia” in O’Toole’s office is bringing his leadership to a “tipping point.”
“You spent three months doing nothing. You’ve fired no one. You’ve not started rebuilding or correcting course,” the fed-up source said.
“This is literally the last stand. There’s no more gas in the tank … He needs to make major changes to his team. And doing that is going to take courage.”