After what some observers saw as a slow start, Erin O’Toole is making this election campaign his.
O’Toole understands the difficulty of fighting an election as the new face of a centre-right party. History, after all, is rife with Tory leaders who failed to make their mark or take control of their party early enough. So far, Erin O’Toole has learned from the past and set himself up brilliantly to avoid the same fate.
One lesson comes from former British Conservative prime minister David Cameron’s 2005 party conference speech, when he was still a leadership hopeful. The speech carried him to win the leadership and later came to define his vision for “a modern, compassionate conservatism.”
In order to form government after eight years in opposition, Cameron argued, the Conservatives needed to drastically reimagine their role in political life and become more positive, forward-looking and optimistic about changes in society. “There’s one thing [soon-to-be Labour leader] Gordon Brown fears more than anything else: a Conservative party that has the courage to change. So let’s give him the fright of his life.”
Canada’s Conservatives have been in opposition only six years, and Erin O’Toole is a very different politician from Cameron. But the guiding sentiment of Cameron’s speech outlines exactly what O’Toole needs to win this election: a Conservative party with the courage to change. If he can present his party to Canadians in those terms, it will surely scare the pants off Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau.
And as we enter the crucial third week of the campaign, O’Toole seems to be succeeding at exactly that.
The Tories are now roughly tied with the Liberals in most polls, having closed a gap of nearly seven per cent. O’Toole has done a tremendous job introducing himself to Canadians in just two weeks, and his team executed a political judo move by dropping their platform only two days into the campaign.
But most importantly, along the way, Erin O’Toole has changed the dynamic of this election. He is likeable, adaptable, and day by day, he is bravely charting new territory for a Tory leader, addressing head-on the kinds of issues that often bungle Conservative campaigns.
O’Toole has spoken clearly about his pro-choice views, the significance of climate change and other perennial wedge issues. Earlier this week, he affirmed his commitment to action on reconciliation and even made a splash by forcefully addressing LGBTQ health issues (I, for one, did not have “Tories push to revisit ban on poppers” on my campaign Bingo card).
There will be much ado about this approach, but I applaud O’Toole and his team for their bold strategy thus far. By plunging headfirst into these issues, he is making himself impervious to the usual late-election attacks by the Liberals.
In the past, the Liberal campaign machine has seized on the grey areas of Conservative policy, using them to transform the Tory leader into an election boogeyman. But O’Toole has pulled that strategy out from under them: he’s done all he can to erase any grey areas that may exist and prove he is no monster.
So, do not expect this campaign to play out like past elections — Erin O’Toole has seen this movie before, and he refuses to be cast as the villain.
That is not to say the Liberals won’t try. This week came the ultimate test, as Liberal candidate Chrystia Freeland and others accused O’Toole of attacking the sanctity of universal health care. O’Toole fared well, explaining that he is an advocate for greater choice and that he simply supports provinces across Canada pursuing new methods as they see fit.
The fact is, Erin O’Toole came into this election with very low expectations, and he has already far exceeded them. Now his task is to keep this steady pace and avoid peaking before he is within striking position of Trudeau and the increased scrutiny that brings.
The odds may have been against O’Toole, but today his task remains the same as the one he outlined in his leadership speech one year ago: “to show Canadians [his] vision for a stronger, prosperous and more united Canada.”
What a comfort then, that the more O’Toole shows of himself, the clearer that vision becomes.