Matt Gurney: If the moderates can't hold the CPC, Canada is in deep, deep trouble

If the moderates can't hold the CPC, our democracy will be the worse for it.

If Erin O'Toole has a bad election night on Monday, the country is in deep trouble.

The country is already in deep trouble. But it'll get worse for all of us, even you non-Conservatives, if O'Toole can't take at least some kind of victory back to his base after Monday.

This isn't personal. I do like Erin O'Toole, to the modest extent that I know him. The fact that Canadians seem to have warmed to him somewhat as the campaign has gone on doesn't come as a surprise. The routine, almost obligatory, Liberal attempts to paint him as some scary troglodyte haven't worked as well this time because Canadians can sense that O'Toole, even if you don’t agree with him on major issues, is a pretty normal, decent guy.

But whether you or I like him or not is immaterial. It’s not who O’Toole is that matters, but what: he’s head of the moderate, principled faction in that party, and if that faction loses, the party is screwed, and the rest of us with it. There are many Conservatives who think he's too centrist, too soft, too Ontario — and if they can, they'll purge him. A disappointing night on Monday is all the excuse they'd need.

One question that comes up again and again about O'Toole is which O'Toole is the real him — the generally moderate Greater-Toronto-Area MP, or the true-blue staunch right-winger we saw during the last leadership race. It’s a weird question — what’s more likely, that he hid his true nature for his entire life except when running as leader, or has he temporarily dialed up the true-blue to win this race? But no matter. The real issue here is what O'Toole's hard-right turn during his successful leadership race tells us about the party — he knows what the Tory base wants. His pivot back to affable moderation once elected leader also shows us that he knows what Canadians at large want. These two things are, alas, not the same thing.

The pivot back and forth has been awkward. O’Toole hasn’t navigated it gracefully. He’s very much on probation even among his own tribe, and has been every day he’s been the leader. And he knows it.

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The fundamental structural problem for the Conservatives is this: in opposition, it retreats back to a mostly western base (with a smattering of eastern ridings) that doesn't want to water down its beliefs in order to appeal to a broader segment of easterners. That's fine, as a matter of principle. As a matter of winning seats in the east, though, what the eastern swing voters like and dislike is important. Indeed, it’s the entire ballgame. It's a chicken and egg problem — the party needs to moderate itself in order to win in the east, but it can't win in the east until and unless it moderates.

O'Toole is trying to solve that riddle. The Conservative party is not a happy group these days, but victory buys a lot of forgiveness. Even a decent shot at power would give O'Toole something he’s never had: a hand strong enough to bend the party, against the preferences of much of its base, into something that could actually win, and win consistently, from Toronto to the Atlantic. There is simply no other path to a Conservative victory, and to the die-hard Tory base that resents this, well, guys, these facts don’t care about your feelings.

If O'Toole can deliver a victory, or even just tangible progress, he'll probably be able to consolidate his own power, make some internal changes to further the party's eastern appeal, and start the next election in a stronger position. If he loses, he's gone, and the hardliners in the CPC and much of the party's grassroots will be unlikely to try a moderate leader again for ... a long time, if ever. The party would likely retrench deeper into its own base, lose more elections, and become ever-more detached from the mainstream. Does death spiral sound about right?

For a lot of non-Conservative voters, that probably sounds fantastic. "What do we need to do to make this happen?" I can hear them wondering. That’s dangerously naïve. The right-wing movement in Canada isn't going to just evaporate. It can either find direction in a party led by a moderate leader at the head of a disciplined mainstream entity with a presence in all regions of the country — or it can find it in other places. A strong and viable CPC is a bulwark against the rising power of a hard, nasty right-wing fringe in this country, but only if it’s led by the right people.

In the wrong hands, it'll either splinter into a permanent largely western-based opposition, or simply be co-opted by the hard-right.

It's worth recalling that Canadian social and political developments often seem to be about five years behind those in the U.S. And five years ago as Donald Trump was beginning his campaign to become the Republican nominee, many (myself included) assumed he'd go nowhere, and even if he did, that the GOP would have enough institutional strength and self-respect to contain him and turn him into a weird populist prop for the old guard to control. That was wrong on both counts. Trump devoured the GOP, leaving it a freakshow of its former self, with leaders (if we can use the term) so terrified of their base that they'll toss any long-held conservative principle aside to avoid drawing the wrath of a Fox News prime-time host or Trump's social media fanatics. 

The Canadian conservative movement isn't there yet. But it already seems split between actual pragmatic conservatives who want to win and govern Canadians responsibly, or, as we described them in a recent dispatch here at The Line, "angry dudebro wankers churning out profane social content, content to live out their lives in opposition for the lulz."

O'Toole, imperfect as he is, is the best chance the moderates have of holding onto the CPC, positioning it as a viable alternative to the Liberals in the Canadian mainstream, and crushing the odd dudebro MAGA idiocy outbreak when it flares up. If O'Toole loses, the dudebros will inherit the party. 

O'Toole, should he survive as CPC leader, will actually have to be willing to ruthlessly purge his party of the 20-something shitposters and even some long-standing MPs — looking at you, Ms. Gallant — who might be a shoo-in in their one riding, but whose continued presence in the Conservative caucus makes 30 other ridings harder to win.

Is he willing to play hardball with his own right flank, if Monday's results give him enough security and a free hand to do so? I don't know, readers. I honestly don't.

But I am confident that if he loses and is tossed, or doesn't ever become strong enough within the party to actually impose his will on it, then the CPC won’t hold, mere anarchy will be loosed, and you all know the rest. Canada's democracy cannot function without a viable federal conservative option that can actually win national election. There is a global populist resurgence afoot and if the CPC doesn't stop them on the right, or is outright subsumed by them, the only ones left to hold onto Canada's liberal democracy will be the Liberals, a party so short on talent it kept Maryam Monsef and Stephen Guilbeault in cabinet.

A lot of you out there, even if you don’t like the Tories, know this is true, however unpleasant you find it to acknowledge this reality. We aren’t putting our best foot forward with the Liberals, are we? This party, blessed with boundless faith its own awesomeness, began looking for big ideas to run this campaign on after they started it. This is a party that seems to truly and sincerely believe that overpromising and underdelivering is what they’re supposed to do. A party that reacts with thin-skinned scorn when anyone notes the yawning chasm between their ambition and their achievements.

If the fascists really are on the march, do you trust the the Liberals to stop them?

Because those really are the stakes, friends. We have had an incredible multi-generational run of luck since the end of the Second World War, but the world is changing around us fast, not for the better, and our political leaders today simply aren't up to the task of confronting what's coming. The low caliber of our leadership will be worsened if the right-wing descends into fringe madness in this country, leaving voters to choose, again and again, either the spineless and clueless Liberals, or various flavours of crazies on the left and the increasingly far right.

O’Toole didn’t have a horrible campaign, but he can and should have done better. And the Conservative party, for all the reasons listed above, can't be handed the keys to power in Canada, at least not with a majority, until it gets its own shit together and stands firm against the corrosive populists that gutted the GOP like a bloated fish. The smart Conservatives, the ones who get what they're up against and understand what has happened to the GOP, need time to get their own house in order, and they need a good enough outcome on Monday night to give them the power to do it.

This is where we are. The Liberals, who believe in nothing other than that Liberals should win because they are Liberals, need a viable right-wing competitor if our democracy is to survive the many challenges ahead. They won't have that unless the moderate CPCers prevail, hold off the rising fury on the far right, and make the Conservative Party of Canada a truly sustainable, viable electoral alternative that millions of Canadians can vote for in good faith and clean consciences. Whether it will be that party pretty much hangs on what happens a few days from now.

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