Don Martin: With Trudeau's return as a target, worst might be over for O'Toole
OTTAWA -- If bad leaders come in threes, this week’s storm of ugly headlines clearly lump Erin O’Toole into the trifecta of disastrous Conservative leaders alongside Andrew Scheer and Stockwell Day.
But the worst may now be behind O’Toole as his party prepares to return to Parliament in five days to take aim at the real target, specifically Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
Behind closed doors on Wednesday, the Conservative caucus adopted a crisis-what-crisis? view of the challenges being unleashed at their leader of just 15 months.
Usually-reliable sources saying there was little sign that calls for an early review of O’Toole’s reign are gaining traction among MPs or that his heavy-handed discipline of dissidents was considered unacceptably harsh.
Granted, using voicemail to tell Senator Denise Batters she’d been booted as a Conservative parliamentarian for launching a leadership review petition was cowardly.
O’Toole should’ve had the guts to look her in the eye when the knife went in and perhaps explain that she could return to the caucus if the leadership petition fails to attract enough signatures.
But Batters is just a senator, after all, and the Red Chamber is no longer filled with napping appointees who mull sober second thoughts over what party leaders tell them to think.
Now dominated by independents, albeit liberal-leaning Trudeau appointees for the most part, there’s almost no point in allowing appointed senators to parade the Conservative flag through the upper house anymore. They should all be thrown out of the caucus. But I digress.
Perhaps the best news for O’Toole on Wednesday were indications the so-called Civil Liberties Caucus of anti-vaccine defenders -- essentially Andrew Scheer loyalists and anti-abortion MPs engaging a new crusade -- has fizzled to the fringe. As one MP confided, “they were never really a thing anyway.”
If so, that eliminates a major parliamentary migraine for O’Toole once he’s back in the House because you just know Trudeau will be salivating to throw feathery tar at the entire party as dangerous defenders of vaccination holdouts.
In the big picture, observers in the caucus room tell me at most a dozen MPs are suspected of being offside with O’Toole’s leadership, but none are expected to go public with their views. As one former insider described it, they’re just ‘chocolate soldiers’ who will melt in the heat of battle.
Now, this is not to say Erin O’Toole is suddenly basking in a caucus kumbaya love-in where he’s safe from a plank-walking until the next election.
His polling popularity is abysmal and likely to dip even further amid the noise of the mutinous rebels. His moderation of hard-right ideological edges has created more true-blue enemies than Senator Batters. And without a probable election victory in sight, he doesn’t have cabinet considerations to dangle as a way to enforce discipline among the doubters.
But a return to Parliament brings opportunities for an Official Opposition while waiting-around merely vacates space for internal mischief-making.
If Trudeau returns from Washington this week without any face-saving gifts from President Joe Biden while Buy American protectionism ramps back up to Trump-like levels, well, that hands over high-calibre ammo for a Conservative attack in the House of Commons next week.
(As an aside, I wouldn’t be surprising if Trudeau misses most of next week in the Commons to spread empathy and many millions of relief dollars around flood-ravaged B.C.. It’s arguably a justified mercy mission to this year’s worst natural disaster, but also delivers irresistible prime ministerial optics).
And while curbing inflation and rebuilding broken supply chains are beyond the fix-it abilities of any prime minister, that doesn’t mean opposition parties can’t have a field day trying to connect public anger to Trudeau economic mismanagement.
After a few very bad few weeks, Erin O’Toole is now counting on his influential MPs to shame rebel MPs quietly into line and contain the infection of O’Toole review fever to the fringe.
The aim now is to target on Trudeau and stop the circled Conservative wagons from shooting inwards -- at him.
That’s the bottom line.