Erin O’Toole told the Conservative caucus Monday night that there were two paths before them.
On Wednesday, they chose one that didn’t include him in the lead.
Conservative MPs voted decisively Feb. 2 to plunge the party into its third leadership contest since Stephen Harper stepped down in 2015. In the end, it wasn’t close – with 73 MPs voting to remove O’Toole, and just 45 lining up to support him.
On Wednesday evening, the Conservatives elected Candice Bergen as the party’s new interim leader.
In a recorded statement posted to social media Wednesday afternoon, O’Toole said that he accepted the results of the vote that ousted him. But he had some parting comments about the direction of the party he’d no longer lead.
“This country needs a Conservative party that is both an intellectual force and a governing force. Ideology without power is vanity. Seeking power with ideology is hubris,” O’Toole said.
“Canadians deserve a government that delivers exemplary management with a foundation based upon values and our decency as a country. What Canadians deserve from a Conservative Party is balance, ideas and inspiration.”
The sentiment will likely draw nods from O’Toole’s supporters and like-minded partisans that feel the Conservative Party needs to re-invent itself to be more relevant to voters in 2022 – or whenever the next federal election comes.
But it is also likely to reinforce the position of O’Toole’s detractors – that he and his team sacrificed the party’s core ideology in a failed pursuit of power.
The anger at O’Toole and his advisors had been simmering barely beneath the surface since his perceived push towards to the political centre.
After running as a “True Blue” Conservative – the main point of contrast with rival Peter MacKay, who O’Toole’s team suggest was a red Tory despite more than a decade of senior positions in Harper’s Conservative Party – O’Toole immediately began talking about expanding the Conservative tent.
While the O’Toole of the leadership race talked about scrapping the Liberals’ price on carbon – known for a decade in Conservative circles as a “carbon tax” – O’Toole the leader talked about the need of pricing pollution.
While the O’Toole of the leadership race talked about the Liberals’ runaway spending, O’Toole of the 2021 campaign promised a decade of deficit spending that rivaled Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s own plans.
Most Conservative MPs went along with the policy pivots with the assurance that O’Toole’s team saw it as a path to victory. When that victory did not materialize in September’s general election – and the party lost ground in crucial regions and among important constituencies – the simmering anger started to boil over publicly.
Then, after a fractious caucus meeting last week where MPs discussed former MP James Cumming’s review of the failed 2021 campaign, things started to move quickly.
A caucus source in the anti-O’Toole faction said a petition to force a leadership vote came together quickly over the weekend – within “a day and a half.” Bob Benzen, the MP for Calgary Heritage – Harper’s old riding in the Conservative heartland – released a statement Monday night putting a public face on the push to oust O’Toole.
O’Toole and his team spent Monday and Tuesday desperately reaching out to MPs to try and shore up support – with O’Toole promising policy pivots if permitted to stay at the helm.
One MP told Global News that the message didn’t matter if you couldn’t trust the messenger – reflecting the frustration of many caucus members after 17 months under O’Toole’s rule.
That frustration was inflamed by O’Toole’s statement Monday welcoming a chance for a “reckoning” in caucus. O’Toole suggested the Conservatives were at a crossroads – with one path leading to anger and extremism, another to optimism and hope. O’Toole-sympathetic spin painted the caucus rabble rousers as social conservatives angry at the party’s position on banning so-called “conversion therapy.”
Multiple sources told Global News Tuesday that that was not accurate; that the MPs that signed the letter cut across the Conservatives’ ideological constituencies, with longtime MPs and newcomer adding their names.
Heading into the vote Tuesday night, O’Toole’s supporters felt they had enough votes to survive to fight another day.
“That was spin,” said one well-connected Conservative source.
“They knew that their vote was soft. They knew that (MPs) were lying to them. But they were obviously not going to tell people that.”
Instead, O’Toole’s team allowed him to make a last minute appeal to caucus – telling them their concerns had been heard, and that he would make changes to unite the caucus. It was too late, and any changes – unifying or otherwise – will be up to his successors.
Calgary—Signal Hill MP Ron Liepert, who voted in favour of keeping O’Toole at the helm, summed up that challenge after the vote.
“In order to pull this disparate bunch together, we needed to start fresh,” Liepert told reporters.
“It’s going to be a bloody tough job.”