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Erin O’Toole is in the fight of his political life as leadership challenge looms


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Erin O’Toole is in the fight of his political life as leadership challenge looms

OTTAWA — Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole and his team worked furiously to salvage his leadership Tuesday, on the eve of a crucial caucus vote that some party insiders predicted he has little chance of surviving.

Conservative MPs are set to vote Wednesday on whether O’Toole ought to stay on as leader. If a majority of them don’t agree that he should, he’ll be shown the door.

O’Toole and some of his closest allies were working the phones Tuesday, trying to gauge whether that majority exists. But sources told the Star that his team was reaching out in some cases to MPs who have already signed on to the effort to dump him.

“He doesn’t have the support he thinks he does,” said one MP, speaking on the condition they not be named to freely discuss internal party matters.

Thirty-five MPs are squarely in favour of ousting O’Toole, having signed a letter calling for a vote on whether he should remain on as leader.

That effort began immediately after the Conservatives failed to beat the Liberals in the 2021 election, and has gained momentum in fits and starts as the party has struggled to make gains in popular support.

Things came to a head last week, when Conservative MPs heard the results of the party’s election review. During a heated meeting, some caucus members openly challenged O’Toole in a way that left many with the impression his days were numbered.

When news of the effort to remove him broke Monday, O’Toole’s response painted his critics as wanting to take the party down an angry and negative path, one that he characterized as a political dead end.

He returned to that theme Tuesday during calls with his MPs, several told the Star, and promised new approaches on policy.

But trying to characterize his opponents as belonging to specific wings of the party — he cited those opposed to vaccination among them — just made him new enemies, several Conservative MPs said.

“He’s doing exactly what he criticizes Justin Trudeau for doing — dividing people, and pitting them against each other,” one MP said.

That in turn is uniting O’Toole’s critics against him, another MP said, because there is a common thread that links his detractors: broken trust.

“There is no policy idea he could put forward that would fix any of this,” the MP said.

The process for a leadership review is enshrined in the Reform Act, legislation designed to give MPs more power over how their caucus runs.

To trigger a leadership review, a written notice signed by at least 20 per cent of the party’s caucus is sent to the chair. With 35 of the caucus’s 119 members having signed the letter, that threshold has been met.

A vote by secret ballot will be held electronically during a caucus meeting Wednesday on Zoom.

O’Toole only needs a simple majority of votes in his favour to claim the support of his caucus. However, as one MP put it to the Star on Tuesday, “even if he gets it, he doesn’t really have it,” given that 35 MPs have already moved against him.

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If the MPs vote to replace O’Toole, a vote to choose an interim leader will be held later Wednesday evening. Names already in the mix Tuesday were deputy leader Candice Bergen, Quebec MP Gerard Deltell and former Tory cabinet minister Ed Fast.

Bergen was among the handful of Conservative MPs who voiced support for O’Toole on Tuesday.

“I want Erin O’Toole to remain as leader,” she told reporters.

While grassroots efforts to turf O’Toole have sprung up since the election, one in support of his continued leadership was relaunched on Tuesday.

Fraser Macdonald, a former Conservative campaign manager in Pickering-Uxbridge, is one of the organizers of the Majority Committee, which he said is meant to encourage a silent majority of Tories who support O’Toole’s approach to come forward.

He said their perspectives are never voiced as loudly as those who feel the party needs to tack farther right, and it’s time for a change.

“It’s hard to get people to march in the streets about moderate policy,” Macdonald said.

Macdonald launched a petition after the 2021 election to encourage O’Toole to stay on, an effort that O’Toole seized upon as proof that he still had the support of party members.

Macdonald told the Star Tuesday afternoon that he hadn’t been in contact with O’Toole’s team.

Several former Tory candidates, including some in the Greater Toronto Area, voiced support for O’Toole on Tuesday, as did Alberta MP Tim Uppal and Nova Scotia MP Chris D’Entremont.

Finance critic Pierre Poilievre, who had contemplated a run for leadership in the 2020 race that O’Toole ultimately won, did not return a request for comment Tuesday.

Poilievre’s name tops the lists of many party insiders as the person who make a bid if a leadership contest is called.

Another potential contender has already turned down the job. Premier Doug Ford said Tuesday he has no interest in pursuing the federal leadership.

“I have my hands full. I love being premier of this province. We’re going to build this province, and I’m going to continue leading this province,” said Ford, whose Progressive Conservative government is up for re-election on June 2.

“That’s my job, 24-7. I want to unite this province. I can’t stand this divide,” he said.

With files from Robert Benzie

Stephanie Levitz is an Ottawa-based reporter covering federal politics for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @StephanieLevitz

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