O'Toole attacks MacKay for saying he'd expect cabinet to vote against abortion bills
O'Toole dismisses rival's stance as 'weak Liberal leadership'
In a new fundraising email, Conservative leadership candidate Erin O'Toole takes a shot at rival Peter MacKay for insisting on a solid caucus front on so-called "conscience" votes, accusing him of behaving "just like Justin Trudeau does."
O'Toole said in the email that he would allow both caucus members and cabinet ministers in a government led by him to vote their consciences on "moral issues" — an apparent reference to votes on abortion and a clear play for the support of the Conservative Party's powerful social-conservative wing.
He'll have some competition. Three of the six people looking to replace Andrew Scheer as Conservative leader have the public backing of social-conservative organizations like the Campaign Life Coalition: Toronto lawyer Leslyn Lewis, Ontario MP Derek Sloan and political activist Jim Karahalios. The coalition has said it also will back Stephen Harper's former chief of staff Richard Décarie if he qualifies to run.
In an interview on CBC News Network's Power & Politics on Tuesday, MacKay said that while he personally opposes restricting access to abortion services, he would allow caucus members to introduce legislation on the topic — but a cabinet led by him would "be against it."
"I would vote against it and I would have the front bench vote with me, which would be against it," he said.
In his letter, O'Toole says that he would "never whip any Member of Parliament, be they in cabinet or the backbench, on moral issues."
Asked by CBC News to define "moral issues," O'Toole's campaign pointed to party policy.
"Our party's policy declaration, as set by our membership at convention, states that all votes should be free, except for the budget, main estimates and core government initiatives. Issues of moral conscience can include a diverse range of deeply-held personal convictions," deputy campaign manager Melanie Paradis said in an email.
'Timidly trying to rub shoulders'
The Campaign Life Coalition's reaction to O'Toole's message may not be what he was hoping to hear. Coalition spokesperson Hanna Kepka said the three prospective candidates being backed by her organization represent the "true blue Conservative position and have the ability to lead."
"These people are ideal candidates for social conservative voters. So there is no support for anybody who is very timidly trying to rub shoulders and perhaps try to lure the social conservative voters in some way," she said, adding that O'Toole's stated position merely doubles down on party policy.
"Erin O'Toole is not the kind of leadership candidate that Campaign Life Coalition is looking for, and socially conservative voters are looking for."
Conservative strategist Jamie Ellerton said O'Toole obviously is trying to put some policy distance between himself and MacKay.
"An email blast by a campaign is no accident," he said. "This is clearly a tactic by the campaign to try and differentiate their candidate from others in the field."
In his fundraising email, O'Toole said he would stick to Harper's policy of allowing free votes for all MPs when he was prime minister. In 2012, Conservative MP Stephen Woodworth brought forward a motion to study the Criminal Code's definition of when human life begins.
Harper himself voted against it, but some members of his cabinet voted in favour, including Rona Ambrose and Jason Kenney.
The motion was ultimately defeated, although more than 80 Conservative MPs voted in favour of it.
Watch: Conservative House leader Candice Bergen talks about her party's leadership race Friday
With files from Doug Beazley