Conservative post-election report says O'Toole was 'over-managed' during the campaign

·7 min read
Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole leaves a news conference on Monday, Jan. 24, 2022 in Ottawa. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press - image credit)
Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole leaves a news conference on Monday, Jan. 24, 2022 in Ottawa. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press - image credit)

A post-election report on the Conservative Party's 2021 campaign performance found leader Erin O'Toole had a strong start to the 36-day electoral contest but faltered at the finish because he was "over-managed" and "over-coached" by senior staff.

The report, commissioned by the party brass and compiled by former Alberta MP James Cumming, concluded O'Toole didn't connect well enough with voters because he "wasn't himself" at key moments in the campaign.

"The team should have let him be him rather than over-coaching," said a Conservative source who has been briefed on the report's findings.

O'Toole rarely ventured away from carefully crafted talking points during the campaign. Some pundits described his performance as stiff.

O'Toole acknowledged during a Thursday evening news conference that his performance appeared too "scripted" during the closing days of the election campaign.

He also said the Conservatives failed to craft policy on some issues of importance to Canadians, though he did not offer specifics.

"All of these decisions are my responsibility," he said.

WATCH | O'Toole reflects on his performance:

During the campaign, O'Toole struggled to deliver direct answers to questions about his shifting positions on "assault-style" firearms and "conscience rights" for medical professionals. That prompted criticism from party members like Sen. Denise Batters, who has branded O'Toole a flip-flopper.

The Cumming report concluded that O'Toole needed to be more "authentic" and get out on the road to meet with Canadians so they can get to know him better.

Cumming briefed MPs and senators on his findings in a closed-door meeting of the Conservative caucus Thursday. Cumming, who supported Peter MacKay in the last leadership campaign, spent four months speaking to caucus members, candidates, staff, grassroots volunteers and electoral districting association (EDA) presidents as he compiled the post-mortem report.

O'Toole started the campaign strong but faltered in the remaining days. The Cumming report attributes O'Toole's loss of momentum in part to his campaign schedule.

Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press
Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

For two or three days out of the week — and sometimes more — O'Toole campaigned virtually from a makeshift broadcast studio inside a downtown Ottawa hotel. His only interactions with would-be voters and Conservative supporters were through telephone town halls.

"The leader was different in the studio than out. He needed to be out with the people more," the source said.

A Conservative source who attended the caucus meeting said Cumming's presentation spent little time on O'Toole's own failings.

"The section on the leader was about two minutes and they really didn't lay anything at the leader's feet," the source said.

Another Conservative caucus member who was on hand for the presentation — and spoke to CBC News on the condition of anonymity — said the Cumming report lacked "integrity" because it didn't adequately deal with what the source described as the "elephant in the room" — O'Toole's shifting positions on major issues before and during the campaign, such as carbon pricing, firearms and conscience rights.

'He's a flip-flopper'

"We can do different things on practices and procedures and more cultural outreach and less time in the studio and all that. But the report was silent on O'Toole himself. There was no mention of the personal brand that's now attached to him — that's he a flip-flopper," the source said.

"There was no review of the biggest liability that we had in the campaign, which was Erin's integrity. The criticisms of him were that he was over-coached — that's not a criticism of him, it's a criticism of his team. It's sort of like saying, 'What's your greatest fault? ... Oh, I'm too honest.'"

WATCH | Cumming discusses his report:

The source said O'Toole didn't respond well to the criticism he faced during the question-and-answer session that followed Cumming's presentation.

"Erin just dismissed it. He often just counter-attacked the questioner or said, 'Yes, this is the right place to raise these questions,' and then wouldn't answer them. That was the theme — he didn't address them."

"When you ask a question of the leader in caucus, you expect an answer and people weren't getting them and there was a lot of conflict," the source said, adding that there's a "clear feeling" that O'Toole "came out of this two-day retreat much weaker than when he went in."

A Conservative caucus member friendly to O'Toole said the leader's shifting positions were "absolutely acknowledged" during the election debrief.

"We talked about how it was an issue for candidates — and how it was tough to explain at the doors," said the source, who spoke on a not-for-attribution basis so they could speak freely about internal party dynamics.

Flip-flopping was "definitely raised," the source said. "We talked about how it was a challenge for the leader and the perception of our leader. It was identified in more than one spot in the report."

This source said the "overwhelming majority" of the caucus supports O'Toole and those MPs are growing "increasingly impatient with a small number of people who are hanging on to frustrations."

Frustration over polls, media leaks

During Thursday's meeting, some caucus members pointed to a recent Angus Reid poll that suggests O'Toole's numbers are under water five months after the campaign. Only 26 per cent of the 5,002 people surveyed this month said they have a favourable view of the leader.

That same poll found 51 per cent of those surveyed had a positive view of NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh, while 42 per cent said they approved of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. A source said caucus members are "not happy" that O'Toole has struggled to gain in popularity.

Other caucus members expressed frustration with the fact that elements of Cumming's report were leaked to the media. Even before the former MP finished his presentation to caucus, Global News published a story on some of the findings.

"At the beginning of caucus, the leadership, the whip, Cumming, they all warned us not to leak this. We were told anyone found leaking would be in big trouble. Then, Alex Boutilier comes out with an article while Cumming is still speaking," the source said, referring to the Global reporter.

"The caucus went nuts. They were furious and asked the leader why it leaked out and if it was to put him in a good light. The leader denied it."

Diversity problem

The Cumming report also zeroed in on the party's poor performance with so-called "ethnic voters." The party stumbled in the 2021 campaign in must-win areas like the Greater Toronto Area and Vancouver and its suburbs — two ethnically and racially diverse regions that have skewed Liberal in the last two election cycles.

The party's current contingent of MPs is virtually all white. A number of diverse Conservative candidates lost their seats to a Liberal Party that performed well among East Asian and South Asian voters in cities like Brampton, Ont. and Richmond, B.C.

"This goes way back to 2015, it goes back to the niqab ban and the barbaric cultural practices tip line," the source said, referring to controversial Conservative policy proposals during the 2015 election campaign.

"It did damage to the brand that we have not been able to resolve. We've never had the opportunity to rebuild the brand in cultural communities,"

The report says the party should invest more resources in ethnic outreach and engaging with communities "in the language of their choice." The report also suggested the party could make memberships free to attract more supporters.

"We've been spinning our wheels since 2015," the source said.

Jenni Byrne, the party's national campaign manager during the 2015 federal election, said "blaming the 2015 campaign makes no sense" and doesn't explain why the party faltered among some groups.

"We won the seats that Erin lost in 2015 and in 2019," Byrne told CBC News. "How could two elections and two leaders have cost him support?"

Under O'Toole, the party dropped five MPs in diverse areas of the country — Kenny Chiu, Nelly Shin and Alice Wong from Vancouver-area ridings, Bob Saroya from the riding of Markham-Unionville (a suburb of Toronto) and Calgary's Jag Sahota. All of these seats had been in the Conservative win column in 2019.

"And also, Erin was the caucus representative on the 2015 platform," Byrne said, citing the document that included proposals for a "niqab ban" at citizenship ceremonies and a hotline to report what the party called "barbaric cultural practices," such as sexual slavery or "honour" killings.

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