Have Erin O’Toole and Peter MacKay learned the lessons of Andrew Scheer?

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Conservative leadership candidates Erin O'Toole and Peter MacKay.


OTTAWA–Erin O’Toole stood on a snowy Ottawa street corner last week, saying perfectly reasonable things about needing to broaden the Conservatives’ appeal.

The party needs to modernize, he told a CBC reporter outside the public broadcaster’s Ottawa studio, but without compromising its conservative principles. It needs “ideas for the future.”

Later that week, the O’Toole campaign released a video from the same street corner with one of those ideas: defund the CBC.

The idea will have traction with a segment of the Conservative base, no doubt. But it also gives some insight into the strategy that O’Toole, one of the race’s two frontrunners, looks set on pursuing.

While the other frontrunner, Peter MacKay, appears intent on juggernauting his way through the opposition, relying on name recognition and a long resume, O’Toole is running a campaign with policies and promises hand-crafted to appeal to — and provoke reactions from — subsets of the Conservative base.

The question for the party is whether this dynamic is likely to produce the kind of “modernized” Conservative movement O’Toole and so many others have said is necessary to win back power.

Many conservatives had hoped that this race would be about competing visions for the party’s future. But with Rona Ambrose, Jean Charest, Pierre Poilievre and John Baird all out, it’s not shaping up that way.

Instead, with the leadership field now likely set, a very different kind of race has emerged: MacKay largely avoiding questions of vision and O’Toole offering a micro-targeted grab-bag of policy from which a vision can be hard to discern.

For Campus Conservatives and the always-online set? O’Toole will take the fight to the “extreme left” and won’t stand for their “cancel culture.” For the moderately socially conservative? O’Toole will march in Toronto’s Pride parade — but only if organizers allow uniformed police to once again participate.

If elected, O’Toole would end the Trudeau government’s support for the struggling news industry (which benefits the Toronto Star, among others). O’Toole says he won’t pander for the “fake approval” of the Ottawa press corps.

O’Toole (like MacKay) will follow Conservative party orthodoxies by vowing to get rid of carbon pricing and to get “tough” on crime.

From all this a strategy, if not a vision, can be gleaned: O’Toole is trying to cobble together enough disparate Conservative factions to spoil the frontrunner.

That could happen. If the 2017 leadership race is any indication, pundits should not mistake the frontrunner for a sure thing.

Andrew Scheer was largely seen as an afterthought by the press – and most Conservative insiders – until he upset frontrunner Maxime Bernier. In an interesting twist of fate, many who worked on Bernier’s bid are now working for MacKay.

But Scheer’s 2017 victory has another lesson. He ran as “everybody’s second choice,” micro-targeting specific segments of the big blue tent, much as O’Toole seems to be doing. He turned away no supporters, and offered enough small-beer promises to attract sufficient support to best Bernier on the last ballot.

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Between that victory and the 2019 election, Scheer couldn’t – or at least didn’t – articulate a vision that broadened the Conservatives’ appeal. In the roughly two years he was leader, which included a policy convention that failed to produce meaningful policy, Scheer didn’t provide enough voters with a reason to vote Conservative.

Both MacKay and O’Toole would be wise to consider not only what tactics are required to win the leadership, but where those tactics will leave the party when the next leader goes up against Justin Trudeau. Whoever wins will likely have less time than Scheer did to win over voters to his or her vision, if he or she has one, of the Conservative cause.

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