Politics

O'Toole's supporters rally around the leader ahead of a caucus vote on his future

A number of Conservative MPs rallied behind Erin O'Toole Tuesday, saying he should stay on as leader even as some of his caucus colleagues mobilize to oust him.

Sources say the anti-O'Toole movement has enough caucus support to oust the leader

Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole speaks during a media availability in West Block on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, on Thursday, Jan. 27, 2022. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

A number of Conservative MPs rallied behind Erin O'Toole Tuesday, saying he should stay on as leader even as some of his caucus colleagues mobilize to oust him.

Speaking briefly to reporters on Parliament Hill, the party's deputy leader Candice Bergen said she's not interested in taking over as interim leader if O'Toole gets the boot after a planned vote tomorrow at the Conservative caucus meeting.

"I want Erin O'Toole to remain as leader," she said.

MPs opposed to O'Toole's leadership have collected enough signatures — 35 so far — to hold a secret ballot on his future Wednesday, sources have told CBC News.

A vote by 50 per cent plus one of the 119 sitting Conservative MPs calling on O'Toole to step down would force him to make way for an interim leader immediately. Sources tell CBC News that O'Toole's caucus opponents believe they have the necessary votes, with at least 60 MPs agreeing that he has to go.

WATCH | Conservative MP Michelle Rempel Garner tells CBC's Power & Politics she will vote to keep O'Toole as leader

‘I think what we need to do right now is focus on being a united opposition’ | MP Michelle Rempel Garner

10 months ago
Duration 9:08
Alberta Conservative MP Michelle Rempel Garner joins Power & Politics to discuss why she will vote to keep Leader Erin O'Toole as head of the party on Wednesday.

In a media statement, Conservative MP Michelle Rempel Garner said her constituents sent her to Ottawa to address the "soaring cost of living, a broken health care system, lost jobs and more." She said she didn't enter politics to participate in "party infighting that weakens our ability to hold the Liberals to account."

"Canada faces multiple crises and needs our party to work, not spending months on a leadership race triggered by caucus. I am focused on working hard for my community and that is why I will be voting against an immediate months-long leadership race and for Mr. O'Toole tomorrow," she said.

Rempel Garner said party members should be the ones to "drive the bus on a leadership review at our next convention, per standing practice of our party."

Even if O'Toole can fend off a caucus revolt in the short term, he'll face another formal challenge to his position in 2023. Under the party's constitution, there is an automatic leadership review at the first national Conservative convention after a failed election result.

The Conservatives organizing against O'Toole are frustrated by what they call his "flip flops" on carbon pricing, quickly balancing the federal budget and protecting conscience rights for medical professionals, among other issues. Anti-O'Toole MPs also claim the Ontario Tory ran as a "true blue" Conservative in the party's leadership race only to shift the party to the centre when in the top job.

At least one Conservative MP has changed his mind about O'Toole.

After the September election, when there were calls from some quarters for O'Toole to resign, MP Garnett Genuis said Conservatives should "stay united, defend our principles and remain focused on giving Canadians better government."

"We must learn the lessons of the election, share constructive feedback, and remain united behind Erin O'Toole," he said in a Sept. 23 social media post.

Speaking to reporters Tuesday, Genuis said he's disappointed with O'Toole's performance as leader.

"We're not seeing what we need to see from the leadership right now," he said. "I think when you have leadership with a vision that unites people, we're in a very strong position going forward. I think we need new strong, principled leadership that will allow our caucus to move together, united."

Conservative MP Garnett Genuis walks towards West block before question period on Tuesday, Feb. 1, 2022 in Ottawa. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Sources close to O'Toole have claimed that Genuis, a social conservative, is behind the move to oust the leader because he was frustrated by O'Toole's decision last fall to allow the conversion therapy ban bill to pass unanimously through Parliament. Genuis has denied that claim.

Conservative MP Bob Benzen last night publicly called for a vote on O'Toole's future. In another statement released Tuesday, Benzen said that O'Toole could cause an "unrepairable split in the party" if he stays on as leader.

Benzen said that, under O'Toole, the party is divided, with westerners pitted against easterners and conservatives fighting moderates.

"Mr. O'Toole wants to divide this caucus and this party, not unite it. Rather than humbly admitting his mistakes and correcting course, Mr. O'Toole is doubling down — launching attacks and threatening 'consequences' against any MP who dares dissent," Benzen said.

WATCH | O'Toole faces leadership vote: 

Uncertainty for Erin O’Toole, Conservatives ahead of leadership vote

10 months ago
Duration 3:45
A looming leadership vote has created uncertainty not only for Erin O’Toole, but also for the future of the Conservative Party.

In his statement Monday, O'Toole said he is ready to square off with the MPs intent on bringing him down.

"I'm not going anywhere and I'm not turning back," he said in a Facebook post. "Canada needs us to be united and serious."

Fraser Macdonald is a lawyer who recently founded the "Majority Committee," a group of Conservative supporters who are backing O'Toole. Macdonald was the campaign manager for the Conservatives in the riding of Pickering-Uxbridge in the last election — a seat that ultimately was won by the Liberals.

'Ideological purity'

In an interview with CBC News, Macdonald said O'Toole's push to appeal to swing voters in the Greater Toronto Area and Vancouver's suburbs remains a winning strategy. He said the anti-O'Toole forces are more concerned about "ideological purity" than winning elections with a platform that has broad appeal.

"Frankly, some people have a very narrow view of what this party should be," he said.

Macdonald said the Conservatives came close to winning the 2021 election but the "COVID issue really smoked us." He said it's "foolish" to "throw the baby out with the bathwater" and prompt a new leadership race in a minority Parliament.

"We represent the silent majority of Conservatives who are common-sense, solutions-focused and pragmatic," he said. "I worry quite a bit about the future of the party if we reverse course and the people who want to replace Mr. O'Toole make us an unviable and irrelevant option for mainstream voters."

Conservative leader Erin O'Toole speaks with supporters during an election campaign stop on September 19, 2021 in Oakville, Ont. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

He said a push by caucus to oust O'Toole would be "undemocratic" because it should be left up to party members to decide the leader's fate.

"People who disagree with Mr. O'Toole are trying to pull on a few levers and see if they can get their way without asking the membership," he said. "I support Mr. O'Toole as an individual and I think he's shown potential to grow and he will continue to get better."

Conservative MP Chris D'Entremont, who won his Nova Scotia seat of West Nova in the 2019 campaign and won again with a larger margin of victory last fall, said he thinks O'Toole should stay on. O'Toole has touted the party's improved performance in Atlantic Canada as one of the successes of his tenure.

"I support the leader and I think this will put it to bed," D'Entremont said of the secret ballot vote that will decide O'Toole's fate. "I think he's worked hard."

D'Entremont said he doesn't know the names of the 35 MPs rallying behind the anti-O'Toole effort. "I haven't spoken to enough of the guys to really understand what's going on, or to know who the 35 are or who they're not," he said. "It'll be interesting to see."

Conservative MP Tim Uppal: 'We'll get through this.' (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Conservative MP Tim Uppal, the party's chair of outreach, said he also wants O'Toole to keep his job.

"We're having an issue and we'll get through this," he said.

Karen Vecchio, who fought off a People's Party challenger in her riding of Elgin—Middlesex—London in the last election, said she "absolutely" supports O'Toole and will be voting to keep him.

'You've got a bunch of Scheerites out there'

Ron Liepert, a Conservative MP from Alberta, said O'Toole should keep his job. He said supporters of former Conservative leader Andrew Scheer are to blame for this squabbling.

"It's just because you've got a bunch of Scheerites out there. That's the problem," he said.

If the anti-O'Toole forces can cobble together enough votes to push him out, an interim leader will be picked by caucus while the party organizes a new leadership election.

A source close to former Conservative leader Andrew Scheer insists he's not the one organizing efforts to end Erin O'Toole's leadership. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

A source close to Scheer said he doesn't want the interim job and he's not leading the fight against O'Toole.

B.C. Conservative MP Ed Fast, a cabinet minister under former prime minister Stephen Harper, has also been suggested as a possible temporary leader. Speaking in the halls of Parliament Tuesday, Fast said he's not interested.

"I do not. No, I do not," Fast said when asked if he wants that job.

Tom Kmiec, a Conservative who represents the riding of Calgary Shepard, has also been suggested as a possible candidate for the interim job. Asked today, Kmiec said it's "too early to talk about stuff like that."

With files from the CBC's Chris Rands

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