OTTAWA — Erin O’Toole begins a new political life as the leader of the federal Conservative party.
O’Toole was declared the winner of the leadership race early Monday morning after technical problems delayed the vote results by hours, as thousands of ballots had to be replicated by hand after the counting machine shredded their envelopes.
After three rounds of counting, O’Toole emerged the victor with 57 per cent of the vote, a resounding victory over his rival Peter MacKay, who won 43 per cent.
MacKay had been seen as the establishment candidate, and had headed into the race the presumptive front-runner.
But even before his campaign got off the ground, he had irritated many in the party when he declared then-leader Andrew Scheer’s failure to win the 2019 election as being akin to missing a goal on an empty net.
“Peter MacKay losing this leadership is like missing a shot on an empty net,” Scheer’s campaign director Hamish Marshall said Monday.
Ahead of their results, MacKay’s campaign had been hyping their record get-out-the-vote effort, particularly in Quebec where by virtue of the points system the party uses to elect a leader, each ballot could hold outsized weight.
But in the end it was O’Toole who won the province.
The technical troubles were a less-than-auspicious beginning for the new leader, who now is racing to get a team in place before Parliament returns next month with a throne speech that will trigger a confidence vote in the minority Liberal government.
O’Toole will have to make swift choices on who will be in his inner circle both on and off Parliament Hill — a campaign director and new party staffers are among the likely new hires on his agenda.
When Scheer won the race in 2017, he left in place many members of former interim leader Rona Ambrose’s team, as well as the party apparatus. He took office with little by way of a transition plan in place.
The new leader needs to put their stamp on things, said Garry Keller, who worked with Ambrose during her time in the role, and the changes need to be made quickly.
How O’Toole does that will be crucial as it is the first step toward mending what divisions were caused by the race, Keller said.
That means placing rival candidates’ supporters in key critic roles, or finding other ones for them to occupy, whether it is election prep or policy development, he said.
“Idle hands are not helping whoever wins the leadership,” he said.
Also key will be finding a place for Leslyn Lewis, whose climb from political newcomer to a third-place finish in the race cements the power of social conservatives in the party.
On the flip side, Keller said, O’Toole will have to figure out what to do with Derek Sloan.
The rookie MP was nearly kicked out of caucus during the campaign after a furor around remarks he made about chief public health officer Dr. Theresa Tam. He’s also been crudely outspoken on issues around abortion and LGBTQ conversion therapy.
During a leadership campaign, candidates have a bit more free rein than is possible afterwards, Keller said.
“Now that the leadership is over, there will have to be boundaries and how is that going to be handled?” Keller said.
O’Toole had been one of Sloan’s lone supporters in the tight-knit group of Ontario Conservative MPs during the fight over his place in caucus. He’s also promised to respect and listen to the voices of everyone in the party, no matter their political leanings.
Conservative MP Marilyn Gladu, who had tried to enter the leadership race but fell short of the funds required, said she’s confident caucus will rally quickly behind O’Toole despite the acrimony that built up during the campaign.
At the same time, she said, change to how things have worked in the past is needed.
“I think at this point we’ve seen the results that we were getting were not satisfactory, so if you don’t change something and expect a different behaviour, that’s the definition of insanity.”