The rise of Wexit: Why internal party unity may soon be the least of the Conservatives' problems

The real threat to Tories comes from the sameness of the front-runners in the leadership race, not their differences, writes Kory Teneycke.

Real threat to Tories comes from sameness of leadership race front-runners, not differences

From left: Conservative Party of Canada leadership candidates Derek Sloan, Erin O'Toole, Peter MacKay and Leslyn Lewis are seen at an English-language debate in Toronto on June 18. (Tijana Martin/The Canadian Press)

This column is an opinion by Kory Teneycke. A former director of communications for prime minister Stephen Harper, he managed the recent Ontario PC Party Campaign and is currently a partner at Rubicon Strategy. Teneycke has declared he will remain neutral in the federal Conservative leadership campaign and has recused himself from work Rubicon is providing for the Peter MacKay campaign. For more information about CBC's Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

Healing the divisions in the federal Conservative caucus caused by the ongoing leadership race may soon be the least of the party's concerns – the bigger problem is the rise of Wexit.

Sounds dramatic, given that the greatest threat for most Canadians up to this point in the lacklustre leadership race has been the danger of being bored to death. Yet internally there has been vitriol between the O'Toole and MacKay camps.

The French language leadership debate devolved at times into a shouting match between the two perceived front-runners. That was followed a few days later by accusations of misconduct that have prompted police to launch a mischief probe. Depending which side you choose to believe, either the MacKay campaign is suspected of a criminal hacking scandal, or the O'Toole campaign involves a bunch of thin-skinned crybabies who have suffered a run-of-the-mill internal leak.

Either way, the whole affair borders on the comedic.

Ultimately, the MacKay-O'Toole rivalry is best summed up by what Freud refered to as, "The narcissism of minor differences."

Like Justin Trudeau, both men owe their political careers largely to their fathers – one a former federal PC cabinet minister, the other a former Ontario MPP. Both have been viewed as Red Tories most of their careers – although since the leadership race began, O'Toole has been reborn as "true blue" (a marketing term more than a description of his platform).

Conservative leadership candidate Erin O'Toole (right) claims Peter MacKay's campaign team was involved in, 'theft of confidential O'Toole campaign data and strategy.' Police are investigating the claim. (Canadian Press)

Anonymous caucus members from both camps have been talking to the media about the need for the winner to bridge the divide between two slightly different shades of Red Tory. It's all just so much Kabuki theatre – an elaborate opera that is a triumph of showmanship over substance.

The real threat to party unity comes from the sameness of the front-runners, not their differences.

It has created an opportunity for the rise of a populist movement from Western Canada, the Wexit Party, born out of frustration that the region's genuine grievances have been largely ignored. And this has the potential to shatter the unified right brought together by Stephen Harper and (ironically) Peter MacKay.

The lack of a "true blue" conservative in the leadership race — or better said, a "Western conservative" — has opened the door for the rift between the establishment Red Tories and this successor to the Reform Party. Except Wexit Canada has been born under the slogan that "The West Wants Out" rather than "The West Wants In."

And the Wexit Party now has a charismatic, credible and experienced interim leader, Jay Hill. Someone who was a founding member of the Reform Party and who served in a variety of leadership positions during his lengthy political career, including as House Leader in Stephen Harper's government.

Former Conservative MP Jay Hill is the interim leader of the new Wexit Canada party. On Jan. 10, the Western separatist party was granted the ability to run candidates in the next federal election by Elections Canada. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Hill knows how to build a political party and will have little trouble finding credible candidates to run under his banner, possibly even some former Conservative and Reform Party MPs.

More concerning to whoever wins the CPC leadership race should be the appeal that Wexit could have in the heartland of its electoral base.

There are Conservative Party voters in B.C., Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba who are frustrated with the re-election of Justin Trudeau, and dismayed at the prospect of yet another Liberal government winning the next election. They may decide they'd find a stronger voice sending a Wexit Canada member to Ottawa, instead of another opposition Conservative MP to serve under a central Canadian Red Tory.

Such a scenario could see a situation analogous in part to that which occurred in 1993, and lead to the election of dozens of MPs under the Wexit banner.

Worse still for Conservatives, vote splits might actually see a number of close seats in urban areas like Winnipeg, Saskatoon, Regina, Calgary, Edmonton and Vancouver elect NDP and Liberal MPs due to the splitting of the right-of-centre vote.

Should Wexit gain steam, it is easy to imagine a handful of CPC MPs seeking re-election may be tempted to cross the floor in advance of the next federal vote in order to save their political skins. Floor-crossing is always an unpleasant act, but look to those who left the old PC Party to form the Bloc Quebecois to understand the potential of that threat.

If any of these events were to unfold, the small-ball divisions worrying the current CPC caucus and leadership camps will be the least of their problems.


  • When originally published, this column said Erin O'Toole's father is a former provincial PC cabinet minister. He is a former Ontario PC MPP, but did not serve in the cabinet.
    Jul 03, 2020 6:36 PM ET


Kory Teneycke is a former director of communications for prime minister Stephen Harper. He managed the recent Ontario PC Party Campaign, and is a partner at Rubicon Strategy.


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