Opinion

O’Toole’s Tories reminiscent of Ignatieff’s Liberals

It’s too bad that the Conservative party has been forced to do its big convention online this month, because if these were normal times, all the fascinating discussions would be happening in the hallways, the bar and the hospitality suites.

Party leader Erin O’Toole finds himself at the head of a party that seems consumed in back chatter; some of it veering dangerously close to buyers’ regret over who was chosen to lead them last August.

“Disgruntled Liberals” used to provide a full-fledged beat for political reporters around Parliament Hill. It’s starting to sound like restive Conservatives will soon warrant that level of attention, too.

A big fault line, according to Boutilier’s latest report, appears to be dividing the party over whether to go deep or wide. Do they dig in deep with their (mainly) Western base, or pursue more centrist policies – such as a carbon tax – to widen the party’s appeal in non-Conservative territory?

“They don’t like the quote ‘Moving the party to the centre,’” one Conservative source is quoted as saying about the Western MPs.

“They don’t actually care if we’re in government or not, and that one piece has become extremely evident over the last few months ‘You’re not willing to give up five points (in a Western riding) in order to give that to someone in Ontario for us to win there?”

That wide-versus-deep debate was also expertly laid out in a recent article in The Line, by Anthony Koch, who argued it strictly by the numbers. Conservatives, he concluded, are paying way too much attention to people who already vote for them and not enough attention to people who don’t.

“Conservatives will continue to lose if we don’t at the very least risk losing some support in the Conservative heartland in order to make gains in the parts of the country that elect prime ministers,” Koch wrote.

Opposition is hard. The middle is the most precarious spot in politics in polarized times – and polarized parties. Layer all this into a pandemic, which robs politics of opportunities for people to talk over things face-to-face, and it’s little wonder that Conservatives seem out of sorts. A normal convention, around about now, would be an excellent – and necessary – bonding exercise.

I’m not the first person to observe this, but Conservatives in 2021 bear some uncanny resemblance to Liberals of 2009.

Twelve years ago, Liberals had just cycled through one quick leader after a decade in power (Stéphane Dion) and were betting that they would have better luck with their next choice (Michael Ignatieff.)

The world was crawling out of a crisis – not as large as a pandemic – but the considerable, world-shaking economic crash of 2008. Liberals were convinced that Canadians would much prefer the kind of economic stewardship they had provided than anything the Stephen Harper government was offering in 2008-09.

They were also the official opposition in a minority Parliament, tiptoeing around when to vote no confidence in the Conservatives and plunge the country into an election campaign. Ignatieff’s office was going through staff shakeups and caucus unrest over how to keep Liberals relevant.

One other similarity stands out: In 2009, Liberals were utterly firm in their conviction that most Canadians hated the Harper government as much as they did. All of their opposition was organized pretty much around the question: “Can you believe this guy is in power?”

Rude shock: Not only did Canadians believe Harper was in power, they gave him a majority government at the next available opportunity.

The parallels aren’t exactly precise: O’Toole isn’t all that comparable to Ignatieff and Liberals aren’t taking out ads against him, though they are exploiting every non-advertising opportunity to chip away at the new Conservative leader.

It’s said that Liberals talk less about their base than Conservatives do, but a decade ago, the party was in danger of dwindling down to just its strongholds – mainly around Toronto and selected other, mainly urban pockets of the country.

This is where the latest story of trouble in Conservative ranks rings familiar too; a party clinging to the places where its support is strongest and in serious, existential debates about how to be more appealing beyond that comfort zone.

Those aren’t the kind of conversations that political parties like to hold in the open. They’re the topics that partisans like to sort out over drinks at conventions or in corridor chats.

One big advantage of an online convention is that no one has to get out of their home comfort zone to attend the proceedings. But sticking too close to home base is exactly what may be plaguing O’Toole’s party at the moment.

Susan Delacourt is a National Affairs writer.

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