In a gradual shift to the centre, an opening for O’Toole

This article was originally published in the Toronto Star on September 20, 2020.

Since Erin O’Toole won the leadership of the Conservative Party and became the Leader of the Official Opposition, the Air Force veteran and former cabinet minister has been busy waiting in line.

On Wednesday, after an hours-long delay, he and his family were turned away from an Ottawa-area testing centre. O’Toole continues to self-isolate after a potential exposure from a staffer, and he later obtained a test at a special site offering priority tests to MPs and family.

But O’Toole also wasted no time in pointing out that his experience was an indictment of the Trudeau government’s failed approach to COVID-19 testing. Indeed, many testing centres are finding themselves overburdened by lengthy lineups as case numbers are on the rise and students return to school.

Many Canadians may soon find themselves in the same position as O’Toole, shivering in line at a COVID testing centre. O’Toole’s latest attack may resonate with this audience, especially when combined with the imposition of new restrictions in Ontario and the second wave beginning to bear down upon us. Gone is the halo effect of competent leadership in the early days of the pandemic. Instead, we are seeing O’Toole test-driving criticisms of the government as it enters a distinctly more challenging and vulnerable phase of pandemic politics.

As his predecessor discovered, and as I wrote previously in this column, the role of opposition leader in a time of acute crisis can be difficult. You must hold the prime minister and his or her government to account, but at the same time, the rally-around-the-flag effect can insulate the government from even the mildest critique. Andrew Scheer never quite managed to find the right angle to attack Trudeau over his handling of COVID-19, because for months the prime minister cut a sympathetic figure: isolated from his wife and family, working remotely from his cottage. O’Toole’s empathic approach on display with the line-waiting — “I’m suffering because of this government’s mistakes, too”— may yet do the trick.

Even as he sharpens his weapons against Trudeau on the pandemic front, O’Toole’s other task is to sell himself to the 905 region, and an effort to grow Conservative support beyond the base. This will require a softer approach, and a tack toward the centre that is already self-evident to those paying attention.

Take, for example, O’Toole’s Labour Day greeting. “I was raised in a General Motors family. My dad worked there for over 30 years,” it begins unremarkably. But by the time O’Toole is explaining to the viewer that “GDP growth alone is not the end-all, be-all of politics” and “the goal of economic policy should be more than just wealth creation — it should be solidarity, and the wellness of families,” one gets the distinct sense that O’Toole’s own brand of conservatism will be different from that of his predecessor.

To be specific, O’Toole seems to have his eye on union voters — GM families, as he says, just like the O’Tooles of yore. This is the same strategy used to great effect by Boris Johnson in the U.K., who won his majority government in large part by breaking through the traditional, working-class “red wall” of Labour supporters. As one leftist publication concluded, “Erin O’Toole’s Labour Day message should worry the left.”

Further to this goal, O’Toole has been softening some of the hard edges that Scheer neglected. He might yet march in a Pride Parade, and he has been less categorical on issues such as carbon pricing. — indeed, his platform promised “a national industrial regulatory and pricing regime.” Polling indicates that on both these policy matters, the party will need to align with majority opinion in the 905 if it hopes to make inroads there.

There remain some challenges to contend with, including the social conservative wing of the party, which has found a new champion in Leslyn Lewis, the breakout star of the leadership campaign. She has since found a riding, in deep-blue Haldimand-Norfolk, where she will almost certainly succeed the retiring Diane Finley.

Lewis and her like-minded supporters will expect the kind of action from O’Toole that runs contra to the party’s objectives in the GTA. This is the same challenging electoral bind that vexed Scheer, but O’Toole — with his working class bona fides and his eye on the prize — may yet find a way to thread the needle.