Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole said today that conservative-minded voters sick of the Liberal government should park their votes with the Tories rather than turn to the People's Party of Canada (PPC) in this election.
Speaking to reporters at a campaign stop in London, Ont., O'Toole said his party is the only one in a position to replace the Liberal government and a right-wing vote split could lead to four more years of Justin Trudeau.
"There are actually millions of Canadians who are very frustrated with Mr. Trudeau. If they allow that frustration to do anything other than vote Conservative, they're voting for Mr. Trudeau," O'Toole said.
"There are five parties and there are two choices. More of the same with Mr. Trudeau or real change and ethical government with Canada's Conservatives."
O'Toole said Trudeau wants Conservative voters to "vote for smaller parties" rather than unify behind O'Toole's candidacy.
"If Justin Trudeau is rewarded for calling a $600 million election in the middle of a pandemic, everything you've come to dislike about Mr. Trudeau — the lectures, the division in this country, the hypocrisy, the rising prices — they will all only get worse," he said. "There is a lot a stake."
It's the first time O'Toole has publicly acknowledged what some Conservatives on the ground have been saying for weeks: the People's Party could play spoiler in this election.
WATCH: O'Toole says there are 'only two choices' in this election
Throughout this campaign, O'Toole has repeatedly ducked reporters' questions about growing PPC support.
"I'm not going to advertise them," O'Toole said Friday when asked why he won't name the "smaller parties" he now says he's concerned about.
O'Toole's call for strategic voting — where voters ignore their party preferences and rally behind candidates with the best chances of defeating the candidates they like even less — comes as polls suggest the PPC is in a much stronger position now than it was at the end of the 2019 campaign.
The CBC Poll Tracker suggests the PPC has the support of about 6.2 per cent of voters, up significantly from the 1.6 per cent it captured in the last election.
After the last election campaign, a CBC News analysis showed that — even with its rather dismal level of support — the PPC likely cost the Conservatives seven seats in the House of Commons by splitting the vote (six seats went to the Liberals, one to the NDP).
With polls suggesting PPC support is now well above its 2019 level, the party's impact could be even greater in 2021.
While polls suggest some PPC support is coming from first-time or infrequent voters, there's no question the PPC is drawing at least some support from former Conservative voters.
Research drawn from the CBC's Vote Compass suggests 59 per cent of people who intend to vote for the PPC in this election voted Conservative in 2019.
PPC Leader Maxime Bernier has encouraged would-be People's Party voters to cast their ballots for the party they actually prefer, and to not listen to Conservative warnings about vote-splitting.
'The Conservative Party is not conservative anymore': Bernier
Bernier has said O'Toole's more moderate form conservatism makes him not very different from Trudeau.
"Erin O'Toole lied to Conservative supporters, saying he was a 'true blue Conservative.' He had a blue mask on during his leadership campaign but that quickly fell and now we know the real Erin O'Toole," the former Quebec MP said at his campaign launch in August.
"He was a real Red Tory and now he's worse than that. He's a leftist with socialist ideas," Bernier said. "He's just another lying, pandering, fake Conservative who agrees with Mr. Trudeau on everything."
Bernier has said his campaign strategy is to woo disaffected Conservative voters who are disappointed with what he calls the "LibCon'' and "Liberal-lite" party.
"The Conservative Party is not conservative anymore," Bernier said today in response to a question about O'Toole's warnings about a vote split.
"O'Toole has flip-flopped and adopted the Liberal program on the few remaining issues where there were still difference between the two parties, such as the carbon tax, gun bans and COVID passports," Bernier said in an emailed statement. "Mr. O'Toole will have to live with the consequences of his failing strategy."
Some of Bernier's recent momentum is driven by his opposition to pandemic measures. The PPC leader has slammed the proposed federal vaccine mandate as a "draconian" and "immoral" measure.
"I don't want to be in a society where people are asking, 'Show me your papers.' We will have two classes of citizens. That must change. We are not in a communist country," Bernier said at a recent event, while accusing O'Toole and the Conservatives of being "ineffective" and "cowardly" in response to pandemic measures.
Bernier, who says he is unvaccinated, has been among the most vocal opponents of COVID-19-related measures like lockdowns and masking throughout the pandemic. In June, Bernier was arrested in Manitoba for defying public health orders.
Bernier also has said that a PPC government would kill the price on carbon emissions, pull Canada out of the Paris climate accord and stand against mass immigration — positions, he has said, that are very different from what O'Toole has on offer.