Ever since Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole released his “lose, lose, lose” carbon pricing plan, I’ve been watching the overall reaction from the conservative movement writ large. Some in the grassroots went to social media to express their anger at O’Toole’s backtracking on his “no carbon tax” promises, while others went after the fact that it was a heavily bureaucratic plan that limited choice. The Canadian Taxpayers Federation, usually one of the most loyal Conservative backers, joined in on that chorus on social media, reminding O’Toole of past words:

Not one but two videos of O’Toole saying one thing when seeking the Conservative Leadership, before ending up where he did a couple of weeks ago. When you see how he said pretty clear things like that, it’s easy to see why many grassroots conservatives are unhappy with an increasingly unpopular O’Toole. CBC recently noted only 11% of Albertans say they are highly impressed by O’Toole, compared to 16% for NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh and 17% for Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau. And that’s in Alberta folks, yikes.

When you add to this equation the growing discontent in the Conservative caucus, especially given reports that most of them learned about O’Toole’s carbon pricing plan in the media first, this is a moment that could break apart a fragile political alliance. Given that the current incarnation of the Conservatives has only been together for less than twenty years, it’s always been an open question if it could hold together sans Stephen Harper. Well two interesting posts might shed some light on potential troubles for the O’Toole leadership. The first is a Tweet from a respected pollster who has been watching these issues closely, and the second is a new piece out in today’s Hill Times, which contains some interesting tidbits:

Frank Graves of EKOS is one of those pollsters who I respect. I don’t always agree with him, but he usually has some very interesting insights. In that post late Friday night, Graves points out that Max Bernier’s PPC and “others” are starting to eat into the Conservatives vote, which isn’t growing. It’s safe to say that a great deal of those “others” are likely supporting the Maverick Party in the West, lead by former Harper Government Whip Jay Hill. The Mavericks come across very much as a 2021 version of the Reform Party, which makes sense given that Hill, a former Reformer, is leading them. Given that we saw the Reformers/Canadian Alliance basically “overtake” the old Progressive Conservatives to create the new Conservative Party, it would make most sense to see the current Conservatives start to break apart upon those same kinds of lines.

While the Hill Times had a few interesting points, the big tidbit that jumped out at me came back to Maverick Party strategy. When they were formed, they were open about their strategy of only running candidates in a select 49 western ridings so that they didn’t split the vote and elect non-conservatives. They made this choice to help lower the bar on resistance to getting their people to support them, to focus their resources and in the process, maybe elect a few MPs. A strategy that seemed sound. But after O’Toole’s Carbon Pricing plan came out, I wondered if this would “give the Mavericks a great recruiting tool in the handful of ridings where they were planning on running” and maybe “push them to reconsider their strategy” around the next election. Well the Hill Times piece speaks to that, and this is just interesting:

But after Mr. O’Toole’s attempts to pivot to the centre and the recent  release of their climate change plan, Mr. Hill’s position appears to have softened. He said a lot would depend on the timing of the next election and how many riding associations were organized and ready to field quality candidates. Also, Mr. Hill pointed out that as an upstart party, the Mavericks still don’t have the necessary infrastructure in place to prepare to run candidates in all regions of Western Canada.

“Westerners themselves from a broad spectrum are saying, given the fact that he’s completely turned his back on his commitment about not instituting a form of carbon taxation…that the Conservatives are open game, in the sense that we should go after them in every riding they hold,” said Mr. Hill. “And somebody said to me the other day, you know, ‘not only did he kick us between the pockets, but then when we bend over, he stabbed us in the back.’ It’s a pretty vivid picture that this individual, a long-time Conservative, shared with me.”

Source: The Hill Times

“The Conservatives are open game”? Yikes, those are the kinds of quotes that should keep Erin O’Toole up at night. That seems a bit more than a softening, but I guess when you temper those words with the logistical concerns that Hill also raises, that might be an apt way of putting it. The big point here though is that a lot of this would depend on the timing of the next election. Or put another way, the longer it takes for the next election to come, the more time the Mavericks have to organize in these other ridings, and the more potential candidates they could run. That creates a difficult dynamic for the Conservatives, because of COVID they know that having an election this spring is a bad idea, and problem this summer is not any better. But waiting until the Fall gives the Mavericks more time to potentially cause the Conservative more damage. And if the election doesn’t come this Fall and gets pushed later? That only makes it worse for the Blue Team.

So you’ve got a Conservative policy that’s very unpopular with that base, an Eastern Conservative leader who is especially unpopular with that base and a rising populist, regional party riding in the West that’s tailor made to take advantage of just this. Are we in 1990 or 2021? Could be either at this point, and that could be a big problem for the O’Toole Conservatives. The only big difference here is that this new party in question also happens to be a separatist party. Will that be enough of a big policy difference to stop a repeat of the rise of the Reformers? They said that “The West Wants In”, so will it be a big turn off for a party to try to repeat this feat saying, “The West Wants Out”? That is the open question, but time will tell with that. In the meantime, are we seeing a Reform-esque rise of the Mavericks? Maybe, maybe not. But there is a lot more pointing to a potential “yes” here than we’ve yet to see. We’ll see where this leads but as we continue to speculate about the 44th General Election and all that it could mean, we may need to start including the Mavericks in that speculation. And if we do, maybe it might be 1992 all over again.