For a minute, it really looked like Erin O’Toole could become Canada’s next prime minister.
It seemed possible, midway through the election campaign, that he would prove the curmudgeons in his own party wrong and that he would stage a surprise. That his more centrist political leadership and more progressive personal values would see him win over fed up swing voters in a way that his predecessor Andrew Scheer couldn’t quite do.
Instead, it ended with a result that was broadly similar to the party’s effort in 2019. At midnight on election night, despite the Conservatives getting more votes than the Liberals, O’Toole was on track to win roughly the same number of seats with which it reached the elections.
O’Toole’s momentum had stalled in the final days of the campaign, to the point where the writing seemed to be on the wall for conservative strategists even before the results started rolling in on Election Day. Early Monday, stunt specialists were selling the idea to journalists that keeping Justin Trudeau in the minority would be a victory in itself.
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O’Toole went out of his way to sell the same message in a speech Monday night, bringing an energy that seemed lacking in the final days of the campaign, arguing that he should have a chance to move on.
“Our support has grown. It is grown throughout the country. But clearly there is more work to be done to earn the trust of Canadians, “he said. When another election occurs, he said: “I will be ready to lead the Canadian Conservatives to victory.”
Certainly, you could view the minority outcome as a victory for a country that is divided and unwilling to reward a smug liberal ruler for a pandemic call-up that looked like a simple takeover.
But perhaps not for O’Toole himself, who many believed would need to improve on Scheer’s result in 2019 to hold onto the lead.
By most measures, Andrew Scheer had a pretty decent choice last time around. He reduced Trudeau to a minority mandate and won a larger share of the popular vote than the Liberals. It was not considered sufficient. He resigned after two months.
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The fact that O’Toole was unable to capitalize on an angrier electorate and a more palatable brand for center voters will quickly lead to questions about his leadership and his approach to conservatism.
Although a party convention or formal leadership review process has not been scheduled in the near future, the parliamentary group has the power to organize an impeachment. Even with votes still being counted on election night, a reelected MP predicted to Maclean’s that there would be “momentum” to replace O’Toole.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. As the dust settles (and while the ballots are still being counted), here are some takeaways for conservatives from the essential election night results.
Where O’Toole clearly got support was in Atlantic Canada.
At midnight, conservative candidate Clifford Small was the favorite to win the Newfoundland central race at Coast of Bays – Central – Notre Dame. It would be an upsetting surprise for popular Liberal incumbent Scott Simms, and perhaps a reason for Liberals to pay more attention to the province.
In Nova Scotia, the Conservatives seemed to have a slump in support that could be related to the recent victory of new progressive Conservative Prime Minister Tim Houston (who, however, distanced himself from O’Toole after his victory early in the campaign) . This led to the defeat of a liberal cabinet minister, Bernadette Jordan, on South Shore-St. Margarets at the hands of conservative Rick Perkins.
And they were competitive in Fredericton, where former Green Party MP Jenica Atwin, who crossed the court to the Liberals, was in a melee race with her conservative rival Andrea Johnson.
The marginal factor (or not)
As the results are finalized, a great effort will be made to find out what impact Maxime Bernier’s People’s Party had on the fate of the Conservative Party. Was your surge in support a pandemic protest vote for people frustrated with the closures, or will it be a factor in the future? Did he wield some sweet, sweet revenge in this election for losing to Scheer in the 2017 Tory leadership contest?
Each seat counts in a minority Parliament. But while the PPC appears to have been a factor in several constituencies, as it was with a much lower share of votes in 2019, it does not appear to have been the deciding factor preventing a Conservative victory.
It had the biggest impact in the Alberta districts, where the Conservatives still held large majorities. While re-elected incumbents will have reason to pay attention to disgruntled voters in their constituencies, this did not affect the outcome. The Conservatives notably overruled Bernier on his own walk through the Beauce, Quebec. There was also no major performance by the upstart Maverick Party, which positioned itself as the voice of Western alienation.
The lesson here is that O’Toole did not lose due to fringe defectors from the party. He lost because he couldn’t access the greater Toronto area, parts of Quebec and other places where he promised he could persuade a new generation of conservative voters to run. That’s what he’ll wear when he launches to stay the lead.
You say goodbye i say hello
A tentative goodbye to James Cumming, who looks set to hand over the Edmonton Center to former Liberal MP Randy Boissault, and Jag Sahota, who may lose to Calgary Skyview City Councilman George Chahal. Another tentative goodbye for Rep. Kerry Diotte, who may lose his neighbor seat to the NDP. They are the three possible victims of the political headwinds in Alberta, where O’Toole’s close ties to Jason Kenney have played badly on urban streets.
A goodbye (for some, a good goodbye) to Derek Sloane, the rowdy anti-blockade MP who had sat down as an independent from Ontario after being kicked out of the O’Toole caucus, and who tried and failed to outperform incumbent Conservative Blake. Richards at Banff-Airdrie.
And hello to a couple of new faces that we will probably see many more of. One is Haldimand-Norfolk’s new MP, Leslyn Lewis, who you’ll remember as the third-place winner in the leadership contest O’Toole won last year. Another is strategist Melissa Lantsman, who has been elected at Thornhill and whose expert you may have seen on television.
They are among a minority of new faces in a conservative group that O’Toole will soon have to convince of his suitability to continue leading the charge.