The Daily Telegraph
Trudeau rival closes gap after taking leaf from Tory playbook
T‘I moved away to join the army. Unlike Mr Trudeau, I did a few things before I showed up in parliament’
he man hoping to unseat Justin Trudeau modelled his tactics on Boris Johnson and David Cameron’s victories, The Daily Telegraph can reveal, even hiring strategists from the Conservatives’ 2019 win in his bid to become the next Canadian prime minister.
Erin O’toole, the 48-year-old leader of the Conservative Party of Canada, is now within striking distance of achieving that goal on Sept 20.
The latest polls by Abacus Data show him in a tight race against Mr Trudeau’s Liberals with each party tied with 32 per cent of the vote.
Elected to lead his party just a year ago, Mr O’toole, a former Air Force navigator and lawyer, had struggled to introduce himself to voters in the midst of the pandemic.
But with just days to go before a snap election called by Mr Trudeau, Mr O’toole has surprised even members of his own party by erasing the prime minister’s early lead.
His emergence owes something to voter dissatisfaction with the Liberal leader, who has been in power for six years. Many are frustrated at Mr Trudeau’s decision to call an early election to secure a greater mandate while the country is in the grip of a fourth wave of Covid-19.
But strategists say Mr O’toole’s rise in the polls can also be credited to his “big tent” campaign strategy.
He staked out a moderate position on issues such as climate change and abortion early on – distancing himself from hardliners in the party – to appeal to a broader group of voters.
Mr O’toole’s aides “studied what [David] Cameron did very closely” when he rebranded the party’s image in 2005, according to a senior source in the Canadian leader’s campaign.
“They both took over parties that had suffered multiple losses and a very poor brand,” the source said, though stressing that the Tory strategy was “adapted” to Canadian politics.
Patrick Muttart, a former deputy chief of staff to former Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper, said there were “very strong similarities between O’toole and Cameron”.
“Everything Cameron did with the party from a stylistic perspective was about modernisation and ensuring that the Tories weren’t seen as the nasty party… you see something similar with O’toole,” he said.
Mr Muttart, who is now based in the UK, added: “However, from a substantive policy perspective – his focus on aspirational issues, reaching out to unions – I see a lot more of Johnson-style patriotism and the levelling-up agenda that is so talked about here in the UK.”
Campaign sources said Mr O’toole had specifically taken lessons from Mr Johnson’s success in winning back blue-collar voters in the 2019 election. The Daily Telegraph understands that former advisers to Mr Johnson who helped secure him a majority in that vote have also been hired by Mr O’toole’s campaign.
They include James Kanagasooriam, who runs Stack Data Strategy, a data analysis company, and Sean Topham, co-founder of the consultancy firm Topham Guerin.
Those close to Mr O’toole say that, should he win the premiership, he would have a “very good” relationship with Mr Johnson in particular. “We talk to our counterparts frequently and have good relationships, especially amongst UK Tories. We’ve learned as much from them as we could. There are definitely relationships below the prime ministerial level that are very strong,” one campaign source said.
In an interview with The Telegraph after the final election debate in Gatineau, Quebec, Mr O’toole said strengthening ties with the UK and other Nato allies would be a policy priority as prime minister.
“I want our Nato allies and Five Eyes allies to know we will be there as a strong partner,” he said. “We will stand up for human rights. We have a lot of concerns with the conduct of the communist government in China, and we will look at innovative partnerships to work even closer with the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand.”
On the domestic front, Mr O’toole has framed the race as a choice between Mr Trudeau’s fiscal profligacy and his own more moderate economic plan for post-pandemic recovery.
The married father of two has focused his pitch on voters in the greater Toronto area, a vote-rich region, which could be a decisive factor in the election.
At a recent event outside a barn in Whitby, a small town 35 miles east of Toronto, Mr O’toole drew on his upbringing in the region.
“The first time I really moved away, it was to join the Canadian Armed Forces,” he said, dressed in blue canvas
shoes and a casual suit. “Unlike Mr Trudeau, I did a few things before I showed up in parliament,” he added to cheers from the crowd.
It is a message that resonated with many of the 100-odd supporters, mostly farmers and small business owners, who had gathered amid the corn fields to greet the Conservative leader.
Giselle Theriault, 36, said she did not follow politics closely but had become concerned with the country’s direction. “I’m not happy with Justin Trudeau,” she said. “I have a son and the debt situation in Canada is really not OK. I want to see change.”
Cathy, a business owner in her 40s, said she had struggled to retain staff in the aftermath of the pandemic and held Mr Trudeau’s benefits programme responsible. “I’m hoping a new government will get people back to work,” she said.
But while optimism was high at the event, a small protest by healthcare workers just outside showed the stiff opposition the Conservatives still face.
Nicky, a 49-year-old intensive care nurse in Toronto, said she was barred from Mr O’toole’s event when she arrived with signs demanding he address the healthcare crisis. “We’re a public healthcare system and we want to stay a public healthcare system,” she said, adding that she feared that Mr O’toole favoured privatisation.
It remains to be seen whether he can translate the recent polling boost into an election victory.