Canadian Conservatives on Monday announced their new leader, former air force navigator Erin O’Toole, who will quickly have to get the party battle-ready to challenge liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in possible snap elections.
Following a largely virtual campaign due to the coronavirus epidemic, O’Toole, 47, was proclaimed the winner early Monday after a record 175,000 voted in the party race.
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The results were delayed for several hours after an envelope-opening machine damaged several thousand mailed-in ballots.
Former veterans affairs minister O’Toole faced three other candidates in the race to replace outgoing Andrew Scheer.
Peter MacKay, 54, who served as foreign, defence and then justice minister under former prime minister Stephen Harper, had been the favorite.
Two lawyers, little known to the general public, including the first black woman to run for the Conservative leadership, Leslyn Lewis, were also in the running.
O’Toole won in the third round after a close race with MacKay, picking up support of part of the religious right, which had supported Lewis, according to several analysts.
“We must continue to point out Liberal failings and corruption, but we must also show Canadians our vision for a stronger, more prosperous and more united Canada,” O’Toole said in his acceptance speech in Ottawa.
“Canada can and must do better and Conservatives will work hard to earn the trust and confidence of Canadians in the next election.”
A member of parliament for Ontario and less well-known than MacKay, O’Toole had twice previously run for the party leadership.
Both touted a need for the party to broaden its appeal to progressive voters, with a focus on jobs and the economy, but also to pitch a clear climate plan, which has been lacking from the Tories during the 2019 elections.
– Snap election challenge –
Like his three rivals, O’Toole also pledged to abolish the carbon tax put in place by Trudeau, while promising an environmental plan.
O’Toole also wants to lift gun restrictions recently imposed by the Liberal government and further limit Chinese investment in Canada.
During a campaign conducted under relative media indifference, the favorite MacKay had presented himself as a moderate whose priority was to revive the virus-hit Canadian economy.
The new leader succeeds Scheer, who had to bear the consequences of his failure to beat Trudeau in fall 2019.
Scheer had, however, caused Trudeau’s Liberals to lose their majority in parliament while the Conservatives increased their tally to 121.
In his farewell speech, Scheer said he had left the party in a strong position and called on it to rally behind whoever emerged as the new leader.
O’Toole will soon face a difficult decision over whether to force early elections to challenge the Liberals, which will be a hard sell in the midst of the worst economic crisis since World War II.
The next opportunity will be at the end of September when Trudeau seeks parliament’s support for massive new social and environmental spending to steer Canada out of its economic slump.
Trudeau’s minority government is embroiled in a new ethics scandal over the award of a major government contract to a charity that paid members of his family.
The Tories, however, would need the backing of at least two other parties to topple the Liberals, who have 155 seats in the 338 member parliament.
While Trudeau’s popularity has waned in recent weeks due to the new ethics scandal, his Liberals, who have spent billions of dollars to help Canadians weather the pandemic, are still 5-6 points ahead in polls on voting intentions.
The Conservatives could wait until spring before attempting to force an early election, according to many political analysts.