Politics is a vicious business

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A petition to dump Erin O’Toole is already circulating and you don’t even have to be a party member to sign.

By Sheila Copps
First published in The Hill Times on September 27, 2021.

Politics is a vicious business.

A petition to dump Erin O’Toole is already circulating and you don’t even have to be a party member to sign.

Who can forget how ignominiously the New Democrats disposed of leader Thomas Mulcair after he took them so close to power that they could taste it?

Perhaps the Tories could learn something from the NDP’s misplaced haste.

Notwithstanding the personal popularity of Jagmeet Singh, the party sputtered to a near-draw in an election that saw their party pick up a single seat.

The same stall could be said of the Liberals, as the party in power only gained three seats and decreased in popular vote.

But the government in power has significant more leadership leverage than the opposition parties.

If you analyse on performance alone, the parties that should be looking for new leaders are actually the New Democrats and the Greens.

Singh focused much of his campaign strategy on building a reputation as a nice guy. But it is sometimes said that nice guys finish last. And you certainly cannot view the NDP result as a victory.

The Liberals ran first in British Columbia, lapping the NDP even though the provincial New Democrat government threw its weight behind Singh.

The Liberals’ top standing in British Columbia is partly due to Justin Trudeau’s personal and professional roots in the province. Being able to grow in successive elections may allow the Grits to plant deeper roots that outlive a single leader.

In O’Toole’s case, he did increase his popular vote and made some inroads into Atlantic Canada, Quebec, and Ontario.

But his party’s penchant to appeal to the extreme right, cost him seats in vote-rich suburban centres that blocked his path to power, including the GTA and Metro Vancouver.

It must be said that O’Toole’s campaign got surprise liftoff, and even had him in the running to become prime minister until the midway point.

O’Toole tried to move his party to the centre, but he will now be punished for that by the same people who trashed Peter MacKay for his caustic “stinking albatross” reference to social conservatives.

Social conservatives are now after O’Toole’s neck and will probably succeed in getting him dumped.

But in the end, they will not be any closer to victory by throwing their support behind another right-wing leader.

Leslynn Lewis must be chomping at the bit. She won a seat in Haldimand-Norfolk and as a racialized party star, has huge support from those in her party who support conversion therapy and oppose women’s right to reproductive choice.

So if the Tories are successful in ridding themselves of their leader, they may find themselves in the same rebuilding phase that has left the NDP struggling for two successive elections.

Meanwhile, a future Liberal leadership race will unfold more quietly.

Obviously, no one wants to be viewed as launching a campaign to dump the leader even if they already hope to replace him.

This ugly situation faced the Liberals when Paul Martin launched an internal effort to force prime minister Jean Chrétien out of office.

The caucus was badly split, and the internecine fight eventually cost the Liberals an election.

The front-runner in any future leadership certainly appears to be outgoing Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland.

She was travelling extensively during the campaign and that work also grows the political Rolodex so crucial in a party leadership race.

François-Phillipe Champagne is one of the potential contenders as he is quietly going about his work.

With strong ministers like Anita Anand in the mix, Trudeau’s succession should be a very interesting race.

However, as a three-time election winner, Trudeau is joining an elite group of prime ministers.

He will be given the chance to chart his own course. With a progressive agenda of child care, housing and mandatory vaccinations, Trudeau already has the support of two parties to proceed with a groundbreaking agenda.

That work will give him a chance to solidify his own legacy, in which case he may choose to leave on a high.

On the other hand, he may follow in the footsteps of the former Ontario premier, the very popular Bill Davis.

Steve Paikin of TVO reminded us of all in a column this week that, like Trudeau, Davis started off as a young leader with a majority. But his popularity ebbed in two minority elections.

Davis worked on consensus-building and came roaring back to a majority.

The Trudeau team likely hopes that Davis magic can work for them.

Sheila Copps is a former Jean Chrétien-era cabinet minister and a former deputy prime minister. Follow her on Twitter at @Sheila_Copps.