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O’Toole boots senator from caucus over starting petition challenging his leadership


At least 25 Tory MPs publicly opposed a leadership referendum petition by posting statements on Twitter in support of Erin O’Toole

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OTTAWA — Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole has ejected Sen. Denise Batters from the Conservative caucus after she announced a petition to hold an early leadership review and publicly slammed his record as leader.

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The ejection was announced in a statement Tuesday night, on the eve of a caucus meeting Wednesday morning.

“Senator Denise Batters has been removed from the Conservative National Caucus,” O’Toole’s statement said. “As the Leader of the Conservative Party of Canada, I will not tolerate an individual discrediting and showing a clear lack of respect towards the efforts of the entire Conservative caucus, who are holding the corrupt and disastrous Trudeau government to account.”

Although the Conservatives have adopted a Reform Act provision requiring a caucus vote before expelling an MP, the measure does not apply to senators.

On Monday, Batters announced a petition to seek a referendum on whether party members have confidence in O’Toole’s leadership. The petition is effectively trying to speed up a membership review of O’Toole, which otherwise wouldn’t happen until the party’s next national convention in August 2023.

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In announcing the petition — which comes with a website and even a logo to advertise the effort — the Saskatchewan senator savaged O’Toole’s leadership record, charging him with creating a rift in the party and declaring him incapable of winning the next election.

“As leader, O’Toole has watered down and even entirely reversed policy positions without the input of party or caucus members,” the website says. “On the carbon tax, on firearms, on conscience rights — he has contradicted positions within the same week, the same day, and even within the same sentence! Winning without principles is pointless. O’Toole’s strategy and approach failed. Conservatives lost seats and votes.”

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The petition proposes a referendum question of: “Do you wish to have a confidence vote on Erin O’Toole’s continued leadership of the Conservative Party of Canada, by mail or virtually, at the earliest opportunity and, in any event, no later than June 30, 2022?” Batters says that as long as she can collect signatures from at least five per cent of party members in at least five provinces, the party’s referendum process must be triggered.

Some party sources, both inside and outside of caucus, raised doubts about how likely the referendum is to proceed. Party president Rob Batherson has already declared it out of order, given the party’s constitution has a set process for how to trigger a leadership race; party officials say Batters is effectively attempting a backdoor method of holding a leadership review vote, instead of waiting for the next convention.

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Batters, meanwhile, argued in TV interviews that she’s not trying to initiate a leadership race, but instead wants to give members the chance to express their views on O’Toole in the near future, instead of putting it off until 2023.

Some in the party feel the petition may be less about the actual referendum and more about a longer game to push out O’Toole. Going public with it may prompt the various factions in the party that are hostile to O’Toole to coalesce, and to start collecting the membership data that could be useful whenever a vote does come on his leadership.

As one example, the pro-life group RightNow, which had helped bring social conservative support behind O’Toole’s winning 2020 leadership campaign, sent an email blast promoting the petition with the subject line: “How to get rid of Erin O’Toole.”

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People sympathetic to Batters’ move say they expect some well-known names to go public with O’Toole criticism in the coming days and weeks. But although there is clearly some level of organization behind the petition — as one source noted, “Denise sure didn’t build that website herself!” — there is still no sign that a critical mass of Conservative MPs is willing to oust O’Toole and trigger a new leadership race.

The Conservative Party has been dogged by infighting since the September election, and the infighting doesn’t appear to be ending soon.
The Conservative Party has been dogged by infighting since the September election, and the infighting doesn’t appear to be ending soon. Photo by Peter J. Thompson/National Post/File

One MP told the Post that although they are not a fan of O’Toole, they have heard nothing about internal efforts to organize the petition. “I think I would have at least been approached if this was simply the beginning of a larger movement,” the MP said.

Party insiders have also taken note that the petition was put forward by a senator, not an MP. Even after being ejected from caucus, she does not face the prospect of becoming unemployed in the next election; she’ll simply sit as an independent, or could join another senate group. As long as O’Toole has the elected caucus largely on his side, or at least not actively opposed to him, the anti-O’Toole forces will have a difficult time forcing him out, sources say.

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After the petition went public, at least 25 MPs opposed it on Twitter by posting statements in support of O’Toole, and a dozen more expressed support through retweets or likes. (Twitter posts are now one of the easiest ways for MPs to make their views widely known, and O’Toole’s office encourages his supporters to make shows of support through the platform.)

On one hand, all but eight of these messages were posted by Ontario and Quebec MPs, another indication that O’Toole is struggling to rally support among the Western Canada caucus. On the other, there have been no MPs — at least so far — willing to come out publicly in favour of the petition.

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