Conservatives 'united' O'Toole says, after MPs give themselves the power to remove him

Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole says his caucus is “fully united,” despite MPs voting to give themselves the power to potentially oust him after the party’s 2021 federal election loss.

On Tuesday Conservative MPs met in-person in Ottawa for their meeting since the election, where O’Toole faced a caucus upset by various elements of the unsuccessful national campaign, including losing seats and MPs in key regions of the country.

Coming out of the meeting where his MPs took what could be the first step in removing him, O’Toole said he remains confident that he has enough caucus support to remain at the helm of the party.

“As I said today during our first meeting as a caucus: as leader, I am accountable. Accountable for what went well, and accountable for where we fell short. I'm also accountable for where we failed in executing on our plan for Canadians, and I take that responsibility very seriously. I'm resolutely committed to reviewing every element of our campaign,” O’Toole told reporters.

“We're all disappointed, no one more so than me. But we have to make sure we build on the gains we have, learn from where we fell short,” he said.

The caucus’s decision to leave the door open to the possibility to change up its leadership before the next election was one of four key resolutions they made on Tuesday.

Through the Reform Act— an initiative from Ontario Conservative MP Michael Chong that came into effect in 2015—the caucus voted on giving themselves four key internal powers for the coming session, including the ability to review and remove their party leader and elect an interim replacement.

If Conservatives want to forge ahead with this leadership review, 20 per cent of caucus would need to sign a formal agreement to trigger the process, and then it would require a majority of caucus members to vote to remove the leader through a secret-ballot process.

O’Toole encouraged his caucus to vote in favour of enacting these powers, and he said after the meeting that just because caucus has the ability in its back pocket, he doesn’t feel threatened by it.

“This is not about a Sword of Damocles hanging over my head. We're united as a team. This is about having a fair and transparent process that a team must have when it respects one another,” he said.

“His leadership is secure. I’m confident in saying that. I’ve talked to my colleagues today, we had a vigorous discussion in caucus. I won’t get into the details of who said what, but it was a frank and honest discussion about what went right and what went wrong,” Chong said in an interview on CTV News Channel’s Power Play.

Chong, a former leadership contender told reporters earlier in the day that in his view, the party did make gains when you “look beneath the hood.”

“We have clearly more work to do but if we stay on this track—with changes, because clearly mistakes were made—I think that sets us up well for the next election,” Chong said.

Though, in a separate interview on Tuesday’s show, Conservative strategist Jenni Byrne saw the outcome differently, noting it’s the first time the party has enacted this mechanism.

“I think what Conservatives are going to be looking for, is what level of responsibility is Erin actually going to take,” said the former senior advisor to Stephen Harper.

DEFEATED MP TO CONDUCT REVIEW

There has been disagreement within the party over whether O’Toole should be given a second chance to lead the party into an election, following the Sept. 20 federal vote that saw the party fail to beat the Liberals and Justin Trudeau after leading in the polls for a good portion of the race.

Despite O’Toole’s promise to pick up seats across the country, the party is returning with the same number of MPs—119— that it had before the vote, down from the 121 seats the party won in 2019 under former leader Andrew Scheer.

The day after the election, O’Toole announced he would be initiating an internal review of what went wrong during the 2021 election campaign. When he announced the review, he said the party is "building towards victory next time.”

“It’s a minority Parliament… And we have to be ready to run again,” O’Toole said Tuesday.

During the meeting he told caucus, and later made it public that defeated Alberta MP James Cumming will be chairing the review process.

“With the support of our caucus, and the Conservative Party, James will conduct a thorough review of the national campaign. I'm very pleased that James has agreed to chair the review, and I look forward to his report, which will ideally be concluded by the end of this year,” O’Toole said.

He called it a “360 review,” but couldn’t commit to making it public once it’s completed.

“Our team is also focused on what comes next. We have a busy session ahead in the House of Commons. And if we take Justin Trudeau at his word, we may be back to the polls in the next 18 months.”

Longtime MP Scott Reid was elected as the new Conservative caucus chair on Tuesday, after his team was seen handing out cookies with “vote Scott” iced on them, ahead of the meeting.

Asked by CTVNews.ca what can be expected from him in this role, “silence,” was his response, referring to the cross-party sentiment that typically what happens in closed-door caucus meetings is meant to stay there.

CAUCUS MEMBERS EXPRESS CONCERNS

While most MPs and senators were demure on their way out of Tuesday’s meeting about what transpired inside, many spoke openly on their way in about what they think needs to change before the next election. Among the concerns MPs said they heard on the hustings were the party’s approach to spending, gun control, and pricing carbon.

After the meeting most who stopped to speak with reporters did express confidence in carrying on under O’Toole’s leadership, something not all MPs were willing to do on their way in, with some stating there was lots to talk about.

It ended up being an approximately six-hour meeting, where both re-elected and defeated MPs had the opportunity to speak about what went right, and what didn’t from their perspectives.

“There’s a lot of conversations that need to take place in the next little while. We as a team, and as a membership, will have those discussions,” said B.C. MP Todd Doherty. Asked if he supports O’Toole, his response was: “He’s a friend, and he’s a colleague.” On his way out of the meeting, Doherty had little more to say.

One of the caucus members with the most direct remarks on her way into the meeting was Alberta MP Shannon Stubbs, who said she thinks the party membership as a whole should be heard on the leadership question within next six months, instead of waiting until the next scheduled convention in 2023.

“I would just say that having 15 per cent fewer voters vote for me in this election, compared to 2019… is a message that I take very seriously,” Stubbs said. “I believe there needs to be an accounting on how it is that we are going to maintain conservative voters, maintain confidence among conservative voters and supporters, and also account for… the serious losses that we took.”

Michael Barrett, who appeared alongside O’Toole championing their platform at some of the final teletownhalls held during the race, and was hoping to become the next caucus chair, wouldn’t say when asked repeatedly where he stood on O’Toole continuing on as leader on Tuesday morning.

“It'll be incumbent on him to demonstrate that the lessons that our caucus expresses today, that they're learned before we move forward,” he said. On his way out of the meeting, Barrett said there were “mixed emotions,” and “great feedback” given in the room, and that he’s confident that the Official Opposition is returning to Parliament “stronger.”

“I'm satisfied with the presentation made by the leader and by the campaign manager,” Barrett said.

On the eve of the meeting, Nova Scotia Conservative Sen. Michael MacDonald wrote to his colleagues imploring them to vote to have the power to call for a leadership review. In the lengthy letter, he cited the vote counts in key regions that saw the party bleed votes to fringe parties, and O’Toole’s pivot from running in the leadership as a “true blue” Conservative to a more centrist leader.

“The strategy of moving our party to the left not only failed to attract new Conservative voters, it drove out large numbers of traditional conservative voters who no longer felt welcome in their old home,” reads an email from MacDonald to the caucus, obtained by CTV News.

“He has been judged by the voters and he has failed to win a winnable election. To keep trying the same strategy, even with some changes, is only going to drive more Conservatives away, and we simply cannot afford to do that,” he wrote.

Though others, including B.C. MP Dan Albas and Ontario MPs Karen Vecchio and Eric Duncan, said they absolutely support O’Toole and don’t think he should be replaced after one election in the way their last leader was.

“There's a big desire for us to get back to work,” said Alberta MP Michelle Rempel Garner.

Former leadership contender and now rookie MP Leslyn Lewis called it an “amicable,” and “civil, decent” meeting.

“There are differences of opinion certainly in what we can do different, or how things can be adjusted in a future campaign. But, we've got a united party and it’s one that is going to move forward in a positive way and I believe in the next election we’ll show Canadians that we're the right party to govern this country,” said Alberta MP Blake Richards.

When the caucus met for the first time after Scheer’s 2019 election loss, MPs decided against voting to enact the power to oust him as party leader, though he did go on to face further pressure to step aside, and ultimately resigned months later.

Asked whether he thinks that could be O’Toole’s fate as well, Richards said he didn’t think so.

“I do believe we'll move forward with our leader,” he said.

With files from CTV News’ Evan Solomon and Sarah Turnbull.