Conservative members sought stability Monday in choosing Erin O’Toole as leader after a campaign where he focused on keeping the party close to its “true blue” fundamentals.
O’Toole secured his victory in the leadership race after three rounds of counting.
The results had been expected Sunday night but were delayed into the early hours of Monday morning after problems opening the envelopes containing several thousand of the estimated 175,000 ballots sent in by mail.
“To the millions of Canadians that are still up, that I’m meeting tonight for the first time: Good morning. I’m Erin O’Toole, you’re going to be seeing and hearing a lot from me in the coming weeks and months,” O’Toole said in his victory speech.
“But I want you to know from the start that I am here to fight for you and your family.”
His victory over rival Peter MacKay could spell the end of MacKay’s political career. It is also likely to immediately raise questions about the future for progressive Conservatives in the party, who hoped that with MacKay, the party could finally move past the debates around social conservative issues.
In a message on social media, MacKay offered his congratulations to O’Toole after the hard-fought campaign.
“It’s now time for our (Conservative) party and movement to come together, and to focus on what’s most important: ensuring our country gets moving in the right direction again,” he said.
Even if MacKay had won, he would have found himself grappling with the surprise success of Leslyn Lewis, the Toronto lawyer who placed third in the contest, despite never holding office and entering the race as a near-total unknown to most, but not all.
Alberta Premier Jason Kenney, who had endorsed O’Toole, called Lewis a friend, and said her showing in the campaign remarkable.
“Leslyn has broken through many barriers to become a significant voice in Canadian political life. I hope and expect to see great things from her in the future!” he wrote on Twitter early Monday.
Derek Sloan, who was also running with the support of social conservatives, placed fourth with 4,864 of the available points after the first round of counting.
O’Toole’s victory reflects a pitch he’d made to both their supporters in the waning weeks of the race, asking them to use the ranked ballot to make him their number 2 or number 3 choice.
His sell: with a seat in Parliament, and the political experience necessary for the job, he was the best choice to lead the party forward, but he would ensure their views would remain respected as well.
Bringing together the party’s various factions will be one of O’Toole’s challenges, and the results also showed some fault lines regionally.
In the first round, Lewis beat out both O’Toole and MacKay in Saskatchewan and placed second to O’Toole in Alberta, a reflection of her ability to connect strongly with the grassroots there.
With none of the four candidates hailing from the West, all eyes had been on how the party’s western base would voice its concerns over the candidates and the campaigns in the vote.
O’Toole spoke to them, to voters in Quebec, and to all prospective Conservative voters in his speech Monday morning, saying that no matter a person’s race or religion, sexual orientation, how long they’ve been in Canada, income level or education, they matter.
“You are an important part of Canada and you have a home in the Conservative Party of Canada,” he said.
O’Toole takes over the party – and the job of Official Opposition leader – exactly a month before the minority Liberal government will deliver a throne speech laying out a post-pandemic recovery plan.
The vote on the speech is a confidence motion and the Liberals have all but dared the Tories to try to bring them down.
The Liberals congratulated O’Toole but also warned him.
“We have a real chance to build a Canada that is healthier and safer, greener, fairer, and more competitive, and while we will have our differences, we hope the Conservative leader will join us in that work,” party president Suzanne Cowan said in a statement.
“We also hope Mr. O’Toole will reconsider continuing to push the same policies of Stephen Harper and Andrew Scheer that he also proposed in this leadership campaign. They would take Canada backward by making harmful cuts to services that Canadians count on, weakening Canada’s gun control laws, rolling back our work to fight climate change, and much more.”
Much of the leadership race itself was shaped by the pandemic. The vote was supposed to take place in June, but was pushed back and for a time, the campaign itself was paused.
A leadership convention, the kind filled with thousands of supporters, was jettisoned in favour of a hybrid in-person and virtual results reveal after an entirely mail-in ballot vote.
Those had to be returned by Friday. While counting was underway throughout Sunday, the machines tasked with slicing envelopes malfunctioned, requiring several thousand ballots to be extracted and replicated by hand under the close eye of scrutineers.
It led to an excruciating wait for the candidates, their campaigns, and the party staff and volunteers. MacKay passed the time doing push-ups in his hotel suite, O’Toole doing live Zoom chats with supporters.