OTTAWA—There is a clear, but narrow, path to victory.
That’s what Erin O’Toole’s Conservatives were told in the winter of 2020 by consultants hired to help plan for an eventual general election.
That path was laid out over 100-plus pages of analysis and behavioural modelling, a portion of which was recently obtained by the Star.
Focus on a consistent economic message that meets people where they are, the British firm Hanbury Strategies told the party. Exciting the base won’t be enough. The party has to grow, and the firm identified three groups they believed would deliver that growth.
But it didn’t go as hoped. The Conservatives ended up losing seats in the 2021 campaign, and O’Toole eventually lost his job too, pushed out as leader by his own MPs.
Now, just days before his replacement is elected, O’Toole is reflective about the mistakes he and his campaign made.
In a wide-ranging conversation with the Star, he argued what truly knocked his campaign off course was the COVID-19 pandemic, and the Liberals’ successfully wedging his party into a corner over the question of vaccines.
And as he contemplates the political landscape that lies ahead for whoever follows him, he expresses concerns that the political pothole COVID placed in his path is only getting bigger.
“Polarization has deepened in the country, making compromise less attractive on left and right,” he said.
“Too many voices are not willing to try and find reasonable solutions.”
That includes inside his own blue tent. Vaccine mandates, lockdowns and related issued divided Conservatives too, and meanwhile the isolation forced upon people during the pandemic saw too many go down into a dark hole of social media.
“The impact of social media has influenced all parties, but perhaps our party the most,” he said.
“Issues that can easily stray into conspiratorial areas like the World Economic Forum have become hot topics for some of our members only because of the influence of social media.”
The World Economic Forum conspiracy has been a running theme in the Conservative leadership race.
All five candidates have been pressed dozens, if not hundreds, of times by party members to disavow the non-governmental organization over a persistent belief the WEF is a co-ordinated plot to impose a left-wing progressive agenda on governments worldwide.
Where that comes from in part is a spring 2020 project launched by the WEF that was framed as a “great reset” — a plan for more sustainable growth post-pandemic that would address the inequities the global health crisis exposed.
In September 2020, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau gave a speech riffing off those themes, calling the pandemic an opportunity for a reset and to reimagine economic systems to better address social inequalities.
The speech saw theories about the WEF plot explode among the right, including among Conservatives.
In November of that year, Conservative MP Pierre Poilievre even launched a petition to “stop the great reset.”
That effort put around 61,000 names into the database Poilievre would later draw upon to power his leadership campaign — he is now the front-runner.
Poilievre’s bid to replace O’Toole has been likened by some to a movement.
His pledge to restore people’s freedom and remove government interference to encourage greater prosperity has drawn thousands to rallies, raised over $5 million and his campaign said he sold more than 311,000 members — more than the party had in total in the race that O’Toole won in 2020.
THE MOST POWERFUL SALE & AFFILIATE PLATFORM AVAILABLE!
There's no credit card required! No fees ever.Create Your Free Account Now!
Poilievre has been lauded, even by his critics, for his ability to frame economic issues in ways that resonate with people. A recent popular video was a fictional breakfast with Trudeau where Poilievre takes him to task over the rising cost of breakfast foods.
It’s one of the ways both his campaign, and that of his rivals, are already doing exactly what the 2020 Hanbury document suggested.
The 2020 “blueprint for victory” document prepared for the Conservatives stressed the need for the party to recast its economic message.
“It needs to be different to the tax-cutting, fiscally dry centre-right campaigns of the past,” said the Hanbury Strategy report.
“It needs to combine fiscal prudence with empathy and understanding of the priorities of everyday Canadians.”
But one of the regular lines of attack from his chief opponent, former Progressive Party leader Jean Charest, is that Poilievre’s play to the conspiracy theorists in the base of the party undercuts any chance at future growth.
Charest’s campaign has focused his attention on providing in-depth policy ideas on issues he says the party must address in order to be taken seriously — climate change and access to child care among them.
The need to “detoxify” issues like those was a key goal the 2020 Hanbury study identified for the Conservatives as important on their path to governance.
While Poilievre attacks Charest as being Liberal-lite, and Charest insists Poilievre is too far to the right, what the 2020 Hanbury study suggested was victory will take the approaches of both men.
Since 2011, the Conservative vote in Canada has drifted to the right and has become less diverse and less wealthy, allowing the Liberals and New Democrats to move more into the centre, the analysis concluded.
So who should the party go after? Hanbury drew up three categories: the traditionalists, the progressive Conservatives, and the left-behinds.
The traditionalists generally fit the profile of a Tory voter on issues, but didn’t show up for the party under Andrew Scheer in 2019.
The progressive Conservatives are moderate in their social and economic views, and their wealth means they’re tuned in to economics in particular, but they’re just unconvinced the Conservatives can deliver, the report found.
The left-behinds are the least wealthy and educated and feel what economic growth there has been in Canada has simply passed them by.
“As a result, they are hostile to the Liberals, but also lack general political engagement,” the report said.
“Economic messaging could encourage them to turn out for the Conservatives.”
If there’s been a constant in the makeup of Poilievre’s campaign rallies, his team has said, it’s that people who’ve generally never engaged in politics are turning up.
Meanwhile, Charest’s camp has focused their energies on reinvigorating lapsed party members, with a focus on those who once upon a time shared the same PC card as he did.
Taken together, proof of their efforts might already be showing — recent polls on the federal political scene suggest the appeal of the Conservatives is growing as dissatisfaction with the Liberals increases.
For his part, O’Toole remains convinced the road map hashed out nearly two years ago remains the right course.
“COVID politics disrupted the 2021 results, but now that we’re moving past the pandemic, that path is still there.”
Stephanie Levitz is an Ottawa-based reporter covering federal politics for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @StephanieLevitz
Subscribe to the newsletter news
We hate SPAM and promise to keep your email address safe