John Ivison: Erin O'Toole must put this comedy of errors behind him

Federal Conservative Party leader Erin O'Toole speaks via Zoom to the party's national policy convention on Friday, March 19, 2021.

“He must have a long spoon that must eat with the devil”: Dromio of Syracuse in William Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors.

This quote came to mind while reviewing last weekend’s Conservative convention.

In truth, the plotline was more like one of the Bard’s tragedies, in which the flawed hero is consumed by his own ambition.

In this story, the tragic Red Tory hero is betrayed by the true blue social  conservatives he duped into supporting him in a leadership contest against a rival even pinker than himself.

The denouement sees the hero undone by his erstwhile allies, the so-cons, while his former adversary, who supports his desire to drag the party into the second decade of the 21st century, is not on hand to help because the leader

made it clear he isn’t bloody welcome.

As Shakespeare might have summed up the situation, the leader displayed more hair than wit.

The weekend had started with great promise. Erin O’Toole’s keynote speech was skillfully crafted and well-delivered. He said Canada has changed and the Conservative Party has to change too. “We must present new ideas, not make the same arguments hoping more Canadians will come round to our position,” he said.

A Conservative government would act on Justin Trudeau’s “scandals” by implementing an anti-corruption law and by strengthening the Conflict of Interest Act.

But he said Conservatives will never win by relying on Trudeau to “continue to disappoint.”

O’Toole promised a Canada Recovery Plan that would create a million jobs and  develop a Canadian Mental Health Action plan. “There isn’t a Canadian family that hasn’t been impacted by mental health issues during the pandemic. Including mine,” he said. Stimulus would be “targeted and time-limited” to ensure the costs of the pandemic are not passed on to the future generations.

He promised a “comprehensive, serious” plan on the environment, while scrapping Justin Trudeau’s carbon tax. We’ve heard that before from previous Conservative leaders but O’Toole was explicit that the debate about climate change “is over.”

He slammed the NDP for no longer speaking up for working Canadians and promised “security and certainty” for lower and middle income workers, in part by building an economy more resilient to external shocks, with more domestic capacity in vaccines and protective equipment.

It was a solid display at a crucial juncture.

The Conservative leader could be in an election as soon as next month, if none of the opposition parties support the Liberal spring budget.

The pace at which Trudeau is making spending announcements suggests he has his heart set on a spring election.

The polls suggest it will not go well for O’Toole. His personal approval rating fell, even during Trudeau’s own recent disrepute over vaccine shortages. As the pandemic drags on, the desire for change among voters is anemic – by one poll, even weaker than it was at the end of the 2019 election campaign, as voters opt for stability.

But the cause is not hopeless. The public is focused on vaccines and not engaged in partisan politics. O’Toole’s best bet is to survive the pandemic and hope voters decide that, like Winston Churchill in 1945, Trudeau was the right man in the right job at the right time but that the time has passed (two months after Victory in Europe Day, Churchill was dumped unceremoniously, in favour of Labour’s Clement Attlee). Trudeau’s support is soft and tepid, if you believe in the NDP’s recent buoyancy.

But to have any chance, O’Toole needs to present the Conservative Party as a rational, reliable alternative to the Liberals.

Good luck with that after the omni-shambles that transpired at the virtual convention on Saturday.

It was clear that trouble was brewing. The Campaign Life Coalition had been transparent that it was aiming to stack delegate representation with social conservatives and wreak havoc on the leader’s plan to move from some of the positions on which he campaigned last year.

While the party organization was able to quash numerous abortion-related resolutions, the CLC claimed to have recruited 1,100 delegates, who helped pass policies it deemed worthy of support (for example, a national adoption strategy) and, more significantly, defeating those it deemed “bad policy.”

One rambling resolution on the environment called for a Conservative government to balance the environment and job creation; force high-polluting businesses to take more responsibility; and commit to introducing tax credits to support innovations in green technology. One line summed up the approach: “We recognize that climate change is real. The Conservative Party is willing to act.”

For any party in any modern Western democracy (with the exception of the U.S. Republicans), it would go without saying.

The public is already there. Poll after poll says two-thirds of voters believe climate change is real and more needs to be done to combat it.

But the resolution went down to defeat – 54 per cent of delegates voted against it. Campaign Life rejoiced in the O’Toole team’s humiliation. “The science of man-made global warming theory is in dispute. Global warming alarmism is being used by global elites and the United Nations to advance population control through abortion and sterilization,” it said.

The party leadership tried to put a brave face on things. Fred Delorey, the national campaign manager, took to Twitter to point out the Conservative Party policy document already affirms climate change as real. But that’s weak tea – a leader without followers is simply a man out for a stroll.

O’Toole may have to release his climate plan ahead of schedule to blunt Liberal attacks, which are already coming thick and fast.

Some questions in the House of Commons on Monday were ignored, in favour of highlighting O’Toole’s mortification. “I must underscore a matter of deep concern in this House. This past weekend, the deputy leader opposite’s party once again rejected science and reaffirmed its disbelief in the reality of climate change,” said environment minister, Johathan Wilkinson, in response to a question about the pandemic.

Campaign Life has demonstrated it is neither impotent nor ineffectual. On its website, it boasted that seven out of 20 national council seats are now held by social conservatives, who will, it anticipates, ensure the number of “discriminatory disqualifications” of social conservative candidates will fall. This was the revenge of the so-cons and O’Toole is culpable.

Veterans of convention management are angry that the party did not do its home-work. One party stalwart said in prior years, national council and the leader’s team would usually spend months before every convention, working on every single resolution. “We had a team of people organized and ready to avoid exactly what happened on the weekend,” he said. “Clearly that didn’t occur, which is stunning, since it was the main theme of the speech.”

A bigger indictment of the leader and his team is that O’Toole has alienated many of the people who might have helped him. Party members who supported Peter MacKay’s candidacy – MPs, former staffers and grassroots members – say they have been frozen out or made to feel unwelcome since the leadership contest. The irony is that O’Toole delivered a speech that most of them could have endorsed.

AJ Wray, a party member from Waterloo, tweeted that O’Toole created his own problems by “leaning into the worst elements of the party” during the leadership race. “I could have easily delegated through my EDA (electoral district association) this convention. I was uninspired though. I knew Red Tories weren’t welcomed by the leader, so why bother?”

Unless he can pull his party together, O’Toole is destined to suffer the fate of many a Shakespearean tragic hero – being stabbed in the back, but this time fatally.

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Source: National Post Quebec Nordiques