The delicate dance of one Erin O’Toole

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It is a known fact in politics that when one runs for leadership of a party, one runs to the base, and that may be especially true of parties more to the right.

On the right, definitely in the United States as well as Canada, there is a base that is not only fiscally conservative, but socially as well. You cannot win leadership without the support of this cohort, and therefore during the course of your campaign you may cater to them, and make promises.

Then, leadership secured, one makes an effort to pivot to the center again.

This is certainly the case for Conservative Party of Canada leader Erin O’Toole. He was in an especially tight spot during his leadership race because two of his opponents were far to the right of him, namely Leslyn Lewis and Derek Sloan. His other opponent, and closest competitor, was Peter Mackay, from the more centrist wing of the party. O’Toole had no problem painting Mackay as “Liberal Light”, and appealing to the base that supported Lewis and Sloan. And it worked. He won, with a little support from Lewis on an extra ballot.

But now the chickens may be coming home to roost.

Before O’Toole has had much of a chance to define himself as a middle of the road Conservative, the Liberal Party of Canada took the opportunity to paint him orange. Trump Orange.

O’Toole hasn’t helped himself with comments about dumb, radical lefties, or appeals to “middle-class Canadians with roots in family, home and nation” while lamenting “global elites”.

The Liberal mischief appeared in a fundraising letter sent out two weeks ago which mentioned O’Toole catering to the extreme right.

With the mess in the United States fresh in everyone’s memory, the last thing O’Toole needs is to be linked in any way to Trump’s populist movement.

And indeed O’Toole responded to the criticism by saying there is “no place for the far right” in the Conservative Party, while also decrying the Liberal’s “dirty tricks”.

Former opponent Derek Sloan may have done O’Toole a bit of a favour, or at least handed him an opportunity to appear to reject extremism, as news surfaced last week that Sloan had accepted a political donation from a “well-known white supremacist”. Those are O’Toole’s own words. And O’Toole immediately said he would throw Sloan out of the Conservative caucus, and make sure he won’t run as a Conservative in the next election.

“Racism is a disease of the soul, repugnant to our core values,” O’Toole said. “It has no place in our country. It has no place in the Conservative Party of Canada. I won’t tolerate it.”

And indeed, the party voted to eject Sloan on Wednesday, January 20, 2021.

Sloan points out that while O’Toole is decrying him for accepting a donation from the white supremacist in question, one Paul Fromm, the same man was a party member and voted in last year’s leadership race. Pretty hypocritical, Sloan says. He’s not wrong. However, it was Sloan’s campaign that sold Fromm the party membership, but Sloan pointed out that any online registration for new members was directed from his campaign website to the main Conservative Party website.

“This was the worst mistake they ever made and they will regret this. I’m positive of it,” Sloan said, urging his supporters to keep their party memberships so they can attend the Conservative policy convention in March.

So this is the position that O’Toole now finds himself in. Instead of making himself known to Canadian voters who are likely to head to the polls some time this year, O’Toole is in the midst of an in-party fight. It will take a delicate step indeed to reject far-right populism while still maintaining the support of the far-right of his base.

It remains to be seen if O’Toole has the dance skills to do so.

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