Politics·Analysis

Two roads diverged before the Conservative Party — and left Erin O'Toole stranded

After news broke that a few dozen MPs were ready to trigger a challenge to his leadership, Erin O’Toole summoned the spirit of Robert Frost’s The Road Not Taken and told his fellow Conservatives that there were “two roads” available to the Conservative Party. The irony is that O'Toole himself tried to take both roads at once.

The contradictions at the party's heart won't end with O'Toole's dismissal

Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole addresses supporters at an election night event at the Tribute Communities Centre in Oshawa, Ont., in the early hours of Sept. 21, 2021. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

After news broke that a few dozen MPs were ready to trigger a challenge to his leadership, Erin O'Toole summoned the spirit of Robert Frost's The Road Not Taken and told his fellow Conservatives that there were "two roads" available to the Conservative Party.

Down one road, he said, was a party that would be "angry, negative, and extreme." Down the other was a party of "inclusion, optimism, ideas and hope."

The irony is that O'Toole's turn as leader will be remembered for his attempts to take both roads. After advertising himself to Conservatives as someone who would take something like the first path, O'Toole then attempted to off-road it back to the second path for the general election.

But it was a bumpy ride. He blew a couple of tires and ended up stuck in the middle of nowhere.

O'Toole reportedly spent some of his final moments as leader offering to change his positions once again if that's what it would take to allow him to keep his job.

After Conservatives opted to fire him, he signed off Wednesday with a commendable call to "hear the other side" — two years after he launched his campaign for the Conservative leadership with a promise to fight the "radical left."

Now, the Conservative Party's search for the right path will carry on without him. His successor might even be lucky enough to find it.

The base vs. the electorate

But O'Toole's shifting approach to the leadership appeared to be an attempt to solve a fundamental disconnect between his party's most ardent supporters and the general public — between the people who pick Conservative leaders and the people who pick prime ministers.

A more skilled politician might have pulled it off — or might have suffered less in the attempt, at least. O'Toole could have, for instance, done more to make the case to Conservatives that it's time to get over their categorical opposition to putting a price on carbon emissions.

WATCH: Erin O'Toole resigns as leader of the Conservative Party

Erin O'Toole resigns as leader of the Conservative Party

5 months ago
Duration 1:59
Following a Reform Act vote of caucus, Erin O'Toole has stepped down as leader of the Opposition.

Instead, Conservatives apparently were surprised to learn of their party's new position. O'Toole's jarring policy shifts on a number of fronts only seemed to leave him vulnerable with both Canadian voters and the Conservative caucus.

In his wake, the questions that have bedeviled the party for the past six years remain unresolved.

What influence should social conservatives have over party policy? Do Conservatives accept the science of climate change and are they willing to take serious action to reduce emissions?

Can a moderate Conservative win the party's leadership? Can a hard-right Conservative win a general election? Is the agenda that Stephen Harper set (coupled with Conservatives' seething dislike of Justin Trudeau) enough to win power now?

A person holds their hand to their heart while singing O Canada during a rally against COVID-19 restrictions on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Sunday, Jan. 30, 2022. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

And to those you can add a new and pressing question: How should the Conservative party position itself in relation to the anti-vaccine mandate convoy?

While O'Toole went back and forth on the convoy protest — distancing himself one minute, cozying up the next — many others (most notably Pierre Poilievre) were enthusiastic in their embrace of the protest. But the horns have been honking for days and the situation around Parliament Hill seems increasingly unsustainable.

And the answers to the questions facing Conservatives should matter to all Canadians.

As the Official Opposition, the Conservatives remain the odds-on favourite to form government whenever voters decide to make a change. As one of the two dominant forces in Canadian party politics, Conservatives will have an impact on the national debate wherever they decide to go.

On climate change, for instance, the Conservatives have been the last piece missing from what could be a cross-party consensus on the need to act. And the Conservative Party is now in danger of learning the wrong lesson from O'Toole's clumsy handling of the issue during the election campaign and the party's subsequent defeat.

A job with a high failure rate

In fairness to O'Toole, being leader of the Official Opposition is not an easy job.

Not counting those who held the title on an interim basis, there have been 35 leaders of the Official Opposition since Confederation. Just 11 of them made it to the prime minister's office.

The last to do it was Stephen Harper in 2006. Since then, five opposition leaders – Stéphane Dion, Michael Ignatieff, Tom Mulcair, Andrew Scheer and O'Toole – have led their parties to election losses. (Jack Layton sadly died before he got the chance to try.)

None of those leaders got a second chance. (O'Toole at least has the distinction of being the first leader voted out under the terms of the Reform Act.)

But the reality of politics is that success doesn't necessarily depend entirely on skill and judgment. Sometimes it's a matter of being in the right place at the right time — being the person in the opposition's leader seat when the public decides it's fed up with the government of the day.

Depending on the timing of a leadership vote, whoever next leads the Conservative Party will face a Liberal government in at least its eighth year. For that reason alone, the next Conservative leader might be luckier than O'Toole.

Much might depend on which path the Conservative party chooses next.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Aaron Wherry

Senior writer

Aaron Wherry has covered Parliament Hill since 2007 and has written for Maclean's, the National Post and the Globe and Mail. He is the author of Promise & Peril, a book about Justin Trudeau's years in power.

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