Conservatives know what they don’t want. But what on earth do they want?


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So now we know what federal Conservatives, or at least most of their members of Parliament, don’t want. They don’t want Erin O’Toole as their leader.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 02/02/2022 (360 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

So now we know what federal Conservatives, or at least most of their members of Parliament, don’t want. They don’t want Erin O’Toole as their leader.

But what on earth do they want? That’s far from clear.

Do they want a leader who doesn’t have O’Toole’s obvious flaws — his tendency to flip and flop and flip again on important issues, his supposed lack of “authenticity,” and his failure to manage the divisions in his party’s parliamentary caucus?

Adrian Wyld - THE CANADIAN PRESS Conservative leader Erin O’Toole speaks during a news conference, Monday, Jan. 24, 2022 in Ottawa.

Or do they want something a lot more fundamental — a leader who would take Conservatives in a very different direction, one whose heart is truly in tune with their increasingly angry, alienated and often extremist base?

Have Conservative MPs simply rejected a person, or have they rejected the path that O’Toole tried to take them on, one that leads closer to the middle of the political spectrum?

That’s what the party’s impending leadership contest will be about, and all Canadians who care about our democracy have a stake in the outcome — even if they don’t lean conservative.

It’s not in the national interest for one of the country’s two main political parties to follow the siren call of the “true blue” purists who want a leader who’s uncompromising on hot button issues like vaccine mandates, carbon pricing and gun rights.

It’s certainly not in the Conservative interest. Many of the party’s MPs were reportedly angered when O’Toole presented the choice before them as one between two roads — one “angry, negative and extreme,” and the other leading to “inclusion, optimism, ideas and hope.”

Obviously that was self-serving on O’Toole’s part; no prizes for guessing which road he thought he represented. And equally obvious from his resounding defeat, the pitch backfired.

But the fact remains that O’Toole was essentially right.

The Conservatives do face a basic choice, one dictated by simple electoral arithmetic. They must decide whether they’re going to reach out to moderate voters in swing ridings, and give themselves a shot at winning power in the foreseeable future, or they’re content to be the voice of hardcore conservatives and remain stuck in opposition for many years to come.

That’s what O’Toole was getting at after his defeat on Wednesday, when he told his party that it must be “both an intellectual force and a governing force.” Fine ideas by themselves, in other words, are useless. A political party must figure out a way to take office and put those ideas into practice.

That sounds rather obvious, but right now a lot of Conservatives have lost the thread. Too many of them are going down a path that is bound to alienate voters rather than bring them over to the Conservative cause.

Some, including prominent MPs like Pierre Poilievre and Andrew Scheer, have embraced the rolling protest against vaccine mandates that invaded Ottawa over the past week, along with a parade of conspiracy nuts, extreme right-wingers and Confederate flag wavers.

Those MPs displayed terrible judgment and they’ve associated their party with a movement that repels the vast majority of Canadians. If Conservatives want to preserve their credibility they’ll back away at high speed from anything to do with the protest convoy and they’ll chose a leader untainted by any such association.

Erin O’Toole saw the dangers of rushing to the right, but he wasn’t able to bring his party along with him. If Conservatives want to chart their way out of opposition they now must find a leader who has a similar vision, but also has the skills to succeed where O’Toole so conspicuously failed.

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