Well all of political Canada has watching Parliament Hill this morning, as all parties held their respective caucus meetings. With all due respect to all parties, we all know which caucus meeting we were paying the most attention to; the Conservative caucus. With the drama of the past 48 hours Erin O’Toole’s leadership of the Blue Team was being put up to a vote, one that was expected to be close and expected to tell us a great deal about the future of their party.
It was shortly after 1 pm eastern, the metaphorical blue smoke rose from out of the Conservative confab, and the result was as striking as it was surprising. Here is what came out:
Wow folks, it wasn’t really close in the end. Those trying to remove O’Toole only needed 59 MPs to make it happen, and they surpassed that by 14. It ended up being over 60% of the caucus that decided he needed to go, which is a much stronger mandate than I believe that most people expected. That tells us a few things in the end.
Firstly, it tells us that this disconnect went beyond just the core of social conservatives who are known to be the biggest agitators within the caucus. To put this into perspective, only 62 Conservative MPs vote against the government’s conversion therapy ban legislation in the last Parliament, an issue that continued to be a big problem within that caucus & was cited as a reason for moving on O’Toole’s leadership. It’s remarkable that 11 more MPs voted to toss him than on that significant vote last spring.
What that tells us is that the discontent when beyond those issues and clearly came to bother others on the other side. It takes a lot of work to manage to turn that many of your own caucus against you from all sides, and somehow it appears that O’Toole has managed to do it. Part of that clearly comes from the lack of ability or will to manage the caucus on the part of O’Toole himself. The entire episode around O’Toole’s move to let the new conversion therapy bill pass through unanimous consent in December was one that was very telling on this score. In order to do that, you can’t have a single MP offside because all it would take was one of those 62 MPs who voted against this last time to raise their voice to deny that unanimous consent. When that didn’t happen at the time, I knew that either one of two things happened; either O’Toole had worked with his caucus, spoke to those opposed and got them to stand down in that moment to allow his party to move beyond this issue, or he didn’t tell them a thing, sprung it on everyone as a surprise and effectively caught his caucus members off guard.
Now that we are seeing this today, it’s clear that O’Toole too the second path, not the first. That confirms what we heard earlier in the year when O’Toole released their carbon pricing plan, news broke that O’Toole told the public about this plan before his own caucus. As a result, many of his caucus members learned the news from the CBC of all places, which you know just added more salt into that particular wound. As someone who spent a decade working in a caucus on Parliament Hill and I can say for a fact that it’s normal for MPs to know of such big policy plans before they hit the media. When a leader is running a tight ship and is doing the work to connect with their caucus, no one is finding these things out in the media.
All of that builds up resentment, mistrust and eventually, problems. Another leader who might have had stronger leadership skills, or had a reputation that created credible fear within their caucus, could have likely survived such a situation. Stephen Harper wasn’t much a beloved leader as a respected (and somewhat feared) leader, and he could get away with moments like that. But he got to that spot through years of building relationships and a reputation, good or bad. He also got to that spot by having done the work of bringing the Conservative camp back together (something I’ll come back to in a moment). Erin O’Toole never had any of that and it’s starting to become apparent that he never really did the work to build that support. For all the reasonable critiques that can be made of the social-conservative elements of his caucus, O’Toole owns his own style of management.
But that is all now for historians and political scientists to study, look back upon and judge as time goes by. Now is a time for looking ahead and what all of this will mean for not just the Conservatives but Canadian politics in general going forward. When you look at this result, and how all of this has played out over the past days, I continue to believe that some things were said that cannot be taken back. Erin O’Toole is gone as leader, but now we’ll see what others decide to do. Those who tossed O’Toole today have done so under the premise that they should go further right, be more strident and given the language they’ve been using in this past days, likely more radicalized and more like the Republicans we are seeing to the South of us.
I’m personally not convinced that given the moment that we are in, with all the convoy crap we’ve seen in front of Parliament and the support of it from too many Conservative MPs, that reason will prevail and that all of their caucus will hold together. It feels like the gap between the social conservatives and social progressives in their party is getting too wide to manage, and that gap isn’t likely to get any closer. We’ll see where all of this leads, but today’s vote feels more like the first domino falling than the final act of this episode. The Conservatives have made a choice, and now come the consequences for them. The question remains if they are truly ready to face up to them in the weeks and months to come. Stay tuned!