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Opinion: Erin O'Toole and the Conservative Party brace for an ugly war over his shift to the left

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Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole speaks during the election night party in Oshawa, Ont., Sept. 21, 2021. His concession speech line about Conservatives having the 'courage to change' is sure to rankle those who prefer the values established by Stephen Harper, Gary Mason writes.BLAIR GABLE/Reuters

There will be war.

Elections that produce minority governments in Canada always set off gyrations in the country's two main political parties. This one will be no different.

Justin Trudeau will certainly hear rumblings inside the Liberal Party after failing to deliver the majority government that seemed, at the time he called the election in August, a clear possibility. His personal unpopularity was undoubtedly a factor in the outcome.

Nevertheless, he delivered another victory as Leader - his third - and that is impossible to ignore.

With Erin O'Toole and the Conservative Party it's an entirely different matter. There is little doubt Mr. O'Toole is girding for an internal fight, one that could get very loud and very messy and has the potential to lead to a complete fracture of the conservative movement.

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It was never much of a secret that there were many Conservatives who saw Mr. O'Toole's shift to the left as a rebuke of Stephen Harper. The former prime minister's deputy chief of staff, Jenni Byrne, was quite public in her disdain for some of Mr. O'Toole's policy shifts, especially around climate change.

To the surprise and disappointment of many inside the party, including many of his own MPs, Mr. O'Toole did a complete 180 on a carbon tax, saying he would bring one in as prime minister. This would be the same carbon tax that Conservatives had spent the past few years vehemently fighting against. The same carbon tax that Conservative MPs such as Michelle Rempel Garner called a job killer and bourgeois public policy.

But Mr. O'Toole felt that if the Conservatives were ever going to be taken seriously on climate change he had to back a public policy measure that is almost universally considered the best way of changing public behaviour.

That decision was the headliner among his many moves to present a kinder, gentler, more modern-looking Conservative Party to the country. A version that many Conservatives, especially in the West - the party's heartland - want no part of.

Mr. O'Toole signalled in his concession speech that he has no intention of making any kind of dramatic course correction. In fact, if nothing else, he doubled down by saying the party had "the courage to change, because Canada has changed."

It was a line taken almost verbatim from a speech former British Tory leader David Cameron gave in 2005, in which he said the thing the governing Labour Party feared most was a Conservative Party that had the "courage to change." Mr. O'Toole's entire campaign platform was a manifestation of that same belief.

It did not sit well with many in the base, especially social conservatives who did not like Mr. O'Toole's enthusiastic embrace of everything LGBTQ and his unequivocal pro-choice position on abortion.

In fact, not long after he left the stage after conceding defeat, the Campaign Life Coalition issued a news release saying it was disappointed but not surprised by the election result.

"The Conservatives would've done much better if O'Toole had not alienated the party's socially conservative base with his shameless support for abortion, LGBT ideology, oppressive lockdowns and liberty-destroying vaccine passports," the news release stated.

And that pretty much sums up the problems many inside the party have with the direction Mr. O'Toole has taken the Conservatives.

The pandemic compromised Mr. O'Toole's ability to convince the country the Conservatives were suddenly an enlightened, socially conscious political entity. He wouldn't say, for instance, how many of his candidates were fully vaccinated - likely because many were worried that, if it were revealed they are vaccinated, they might lose support to the anti-vax People's Party of Canada.

In tight races, a few hundred votes could mean the difference between winning and losing. But that is the reality the Conservatives faced.

Canada is not a predominantly conservative country, and Mr. O'Toole knows this. He was trying to present an iteration of conservatism that was more palatable to the mainstream. Not everyone bought it.

The party's popular vote was down 14 per cent in Alberta, where the Conservatives lost a handful of seats. To the Harperites in the party, this is unacceptable.

The internecine war we are about to witness will have its roots in that province but will be waged across the country. Mr. O'Toole should brace for impact.

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