By David Ljunggren
OTTAWA (Reuters) -The head of Canada’s official opposition Conservatives, under fire after losing an election to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau last year, says he will resist efforts by some party legislators to oust him as their leader.
Unhappy Conservatives say Erin O’Toole pulled the right-leaning party too far into the political center during the campaign for the Sept. 20 election, in particular by backing a carbon tax to fight climate change.
Others feel he was too slow to show enthusiasm for a truckers’ anti-government protest that is snarling Ottawa, say two senior former Conservative officials.
O’Toole said the move into the political center was necessary to draw moderate voters away from Trudeau’s left-leaning Liberals. The gambit failed, leading to a third consecutive Conservative election loss.
“I’m not going anywhere and I’m not turning back. Canada needs us to be united and serious!” O’Toole tweeted late on Monday. “It’s time for a reckoning. To settle this in caucus. Right here. Right now.”
Some 35 legislators have signed a letter calling for an early leadership review and the 119 Conservative members of parliament could vote on O’Toole’s fate as early as Wednesday.
Jonathan Malloy, a political science professor at Carleton University in Ottawa, said “it looks very bad” for O’Toole, since even if he survived, the result would be close, thereby undermining his authority.
“It may not be a quick death, but it does look like a fatal wound,” he said by phone.
Party officials did not respond to requests for more details of how and when a vote might be held. A simple majority would be enough to immediately oust O’Toole.
Dissident Conservative lawmaker Garnett Genuis said it was “very sad to see Erin O’Toole launching more false personal attacks” and called on him to quit.
The party is dominated by legislators from western Canada, where conservatism tends to be more populist than elsewhere. The challenge is that most seats in the House of Commons are further east, in more heavily populated Ontario and Quebec.
The Ottawa protest since Saturday, ostensibly against COVID-19 vaccine mandates for truck drivers, has turned into a more populist anti-government gathering.
If O’Toole loses, a potential replacement is Ontario premier Doug Ford, who told reporters he had no plans to enter the party leadership race. Another likely candidate is Conservative finance spokesman Pierre Poilievre, who was much stronger initially than O’Toole in his support of the truckers.
One former senior official said O’Toole’s stance “probably pushed people over the edge,” adding that discontent had been building up in January.
O’Toole, 49, was elected leader in August 2020 with the support of only seven sitting legislators.
One of those parliamentarians, Bob Benzen, said “there have been numerous instances of flip-flops and questionable judgments” by O’Toole and called for a vote to avoid what he called irreparable damage.
If the ructions become too deep, the party – created in 2003 by a merger of the moderate Progressive Conservatives and the more populist Canadian Alliance – could split in two.
(Additional reporting by Steve Scherer in Ottawa; Editing by Paul Simao and Howard Goller)