People's Party of Canada Leader Maxime Bernier responds to a question during a news conference in Ottawa, Monday August 24, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

People's Party of Canada Leader Maxime Bernier responds to a question during a news conference in Ottawa, Monday August 24, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

OTTAWA - People's Party Leader Maxime Bernier launched a full-throated attack on Erin O'Toole Monday, accusing the newly minted Conservative leader of wearing a "true blue" mask during the leadership campaign and warning that he is really "Liberal-lite."

The assault on O'Toole's conservative credentials came only hours after the former military officer, lawyer and cabinet minister won the Conservative leadership by defeating his main rival Peter MacKay on the third ballot.

O'Toole's victory came with support from many of the party's social conservatives who had backed the other two candidates in the race, Leslyn Lewis and Derek Sloan. Bernier suggested those supporters will ultimately be disappointed with O'Toole.

"He put on a 'true blue' mask only for strategic reasons: to be the second choice of the less well-known candidates, Leslyn Lewis and Derek Sloan," Bernier said about O'Toole during a news conference in Ottawa.

"But I have a message for the supporters of these candidates: Don't be fooled. He got what he wanted. Now that he is the leader, the mask will fall. He will take your support for granted."

Bernier went on to suggest that after running a leadership campaign aimed at winning support from social conservatives, O'Toole would shift directions and try to steal votes from the Liberals by proposing more centrist policies.

"On every major issue, the Conservative party under Erin O'Toole will be just like the Liberals," Bernier said. "What else can be expected from the leader of the Liberal-lite party?"

Bernier previously ran against O'Toole in the Conservative leadership race in 2017. It was won by Andrew Scheer, with Bernier coming a close second before he left the Tories to form his own right-wing party.

The People's Party was subsequently shut out in the 2019 federal election and Bernier lost his own Quebec seat. He nonetheless insisted Monday that his party would be ready for a fall election, noting it had raised about $2 million from donors last year.

Bernier used Monday's news conference to specifically stump for support among Canadian conservatives, touting his party's anti-immigrant policies and climate-change skepticism as well as its fiscal conservatism without mentioning COVID-19.

There has been some criticism of Bernier and the People's Party, which still does not have a constitution despite having registered as a political party in January 2019. Bernier promised a constitution would be in place by the end of the year.

He also dismissed a question about the People's Party splitting votes on the right.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 24, 2020.