National Post

O’toole tries to soothe restless Tory caucus

Convention on policy runs March 18-20

- Brian Platt National Post bplatt@postmedia.com Twitter: btaplatt

• Facing an increasing­ly restless caucus, Conservati­ve Leader Erin O’toole made the case to his MPS on Wednesday that the party’s upcoming convention is a chance to unite and be a “positive turning point” for their electoral fortunes, sources told National Post.

But with some of his MPS still deeply frustrated over the direction of the party under O’toole's leadership, he has his work cut out for him.

The caucus meeting comes after a steady drumbeat of stories in multiple media outlets over the past two weeks about low morale among Conservati­ve MPS, some of whom believe they’re in danger of losing their seats. In his opening remarks, O’toole urged MPS to quit airing their frustratio­n in the media, sources told the Post. (To allow them to discuss caucus matters, the Post agreed to keep their names confidenti­al.)

O’toole also argued that the pandemic means life is difficult for all opposition parties right now, as the dynamics favour incumbent government­s.

Most MPS took part in the caucus meeting virtually, making it difficult to describe the atmosphere. But one MP told the Post there was a frank airing of grievances — especially from some MPS in Western Canada who feel they’ve been unfairly blamed by O’toole's team for holding the party back in Ontario and Quebec.

“We want to win in other parts of the country,” one Western MP said. “So I’m not sure where that sentiment comes from.”

The Post has reported that some MPS are alarmed at the party’s weak polling numbers under O’toole and feel the party has been drifting without a clear message during the pandemic. Furthermor­e, O’toole's abrupt shift toward the centre after running as a right-wing, “True Blue” leadership candidate has alienated some.

That dispute remains largely unresolved as the party heads into next week’s policy convention, running from March 18 to 20, where O’toole will give a keynote speech on Friday to the roughly 4,000 registered delegates, and then do a question-and-answer session with delegates the next day.

O’toole has been publicly touting the convention, noting it will have an unusually large attendance because it’s being held virtually.

“I do think you will see, coming out of the largest political convention in Canadian history, a Conservati­ve party united, a Conservati­ve party ready to lead, and a Conservati­ve party relentless­ly focused on creating jobs in all sectors and all regions of the country,” O’toole told reporters this week.

A major factor in the caucus unrest, however, has been the party’s sluggish polling numbers; the Conservati­ves consistent­ly lag about five percentage points behind the Liberals and have gotten no boost from either a new leader (O’toole was elected in August) or the vaccine supply delays that plague Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

O’toole's team has told caucus that their internal polling shows a brighter picture, with the Conservati­ves running close to the Liberals. They argue their own polling is much more reliable than the public data.

Still, the public polls are not pretty for the party. On Tuesday, a Nanos Research poll conducted for Bloomberg News showed the Conservati­ves trailing the Liberals on a question that is supposed to be a core strength for the Conservati­ves: Which federal party do you trust most to manage the federal government’s finances once the pandemic is behind us?

The poll of 1,016 Canadians found 33 per cent favouring the Liberals, 24 per cent favouring the Conservati­ves, and 26 per cent saying they didn’t trust any party.

“For the Conservati­ves, the bedrock of their brand has to do with the economy and managing government finances,” Nik Nanos, chief data scientist of Nanos Research, said on Wednesday. “In my experience, there’s not a Conservati­ve leader that has become prime minister that hasn’t at least been competitiv­e or had an advantage on economic and fiscal issues.”

Nanos added that there’s hope for the Conservati­ves in the fact that 26 per cent of respondent­s were up for grabs. He also pointed out that the pandemic has seen the Liberals pumping out unpreceden­ted amounts of stimulus money that likely plays a role in how people are responding.

“If you happen to be a Canadian who’s a recipient of stimulus spending, you’re probably more likely to think the Liberals are doing an OK job.”

Despite that advantage, Nanos said an election call can change things quickly, and he believes Trudeau is still vulnerable. “As soon as the writ has dropped, it’s an automatic reset button where everyone gets fair coverage and more profile,” he said.

 ?? ADRIAN WYLD / THE CANADIAN PRESS ?? Leader of the Opposition Erin O’toole rises during Question Period in the House of Commons on Wednesday.
ADRIAN WYLD / THE CANADIAN PRESS Leader of the Opposition Erin O’toole rises during Question Period in the House of Commons on Wednesday.

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