MP Pierre Poilievre with former Conservative leader Erin O'Toole (L-R).
MP Pierre Poilievre with former Conservative leader Erin O'Toole (L-R). Credit: Pierre Poilievre/Facebook Credit: Pierre Poilievre/Facebook

Erin O’Toole is out as Conservative leader and many eager eyes in the Conservative Party are now turned toward Pierre Poilievre, the MP for the Ottawa-area riding of Carleton.

The parliamentary Conservative caucus ousted O’Toole on Groundhog Day, February 2, by an overwhelming vote.

O’Toole is the first leader of any party to lose his job under the Parliamentary Reform Act of 2015, which was introduced as a private member’s bill by Conservative MP Michael Chong.

The act gives members of a parliamentary party the power to remove a leader, a power they did not previously have.

The act stipulates that those who seek to remove a leader must round up at least a fifth of the caucus members to demand a leadership review. O’Toole’s detractors got more than that.

The next step is a secret ballot vote to remove the leader. To win, a leader’s would-be ousters need only 50 per cent plus one of the caucus members to agree, also by secret ballot. Those seeking O’Toole’s removal got 73 votes out of 118, 13 more than the minimum threshold. It was an unambiguous result.

A few hours after unseating O’Toole, the Conservative caucus chose an interim leader, Manitoba MP Candice Bergen. She will remain in her post until a party convention chooses a new leader.

We will now hear lots of chatter about different possible leadership candidates.

Peter MacKay led the old Progressive Conservative Party that, in 2003, merged with the Canadian Alliance (formerly the Reform Party) to form the new Conservative Party, without the Progressive part. He lost narrowly to O’Toole in 2020, and might give it another try.

The MP whose bill made the ouster possible, Michael Chong, has previously sought the leadership, and he might consider trying again. Chong is currently the party’s foreign affairs critic. He is one of the last of what seems to be a dying breed, the red Tories. In his current role he has been able to craft a new tough-talking, hard-line-with-China image.

In other circumstances, Jason Kenney, once a star member of Stephen Harper’s team and now premier of Alberta, might be a strong contender. Not only does Kenney have more political accomplishments to his name than most other possible candidates, he speaks very good French.

There is, however, one huge factor weighing against Kenney: the COVID-19 pandemic and his dubious management of it. According to all opinion polls, if an election were held tomorrow, Kenney would lose to Rachel Notley’s NDP. Kenney’s own United Conservative caucus in Alberta might even follow their federal colleague’s example and oust him.

Some Conservatives have thrown out the name of former federal MP and Ontario Conservative leader Patrick Brown, who is now mayor of Brampton, which just happens to be in the seat-rich Greater Toronto Area. Political insiders say Brown could have some appeal to Ontario suburbanites, whose elusive votes the Conservatives would need if they ever hoped to win power.

Alberta MP Michelle Rempel Garner is also often mentioned as a potential leader, as is former interim leader and Harper minister Rona Ambrose. Both are sharp, experienced and articulate – in English, at any rate.

Ambrose gained respect during her stint as interim leader following the Conservatives’ 2015 electoral defeat. She is popular with the party’s professionals and MPs, but has publicly said she is not interested.

Poilievre has a large following among rank-and-file Conservatives

If the above names, and others, are in the air, it is because the party has an interest in making it look like there will be a real leadership race.

In truth, however, it looks at this point as though nobody will be able to stop the man the party’s grassroots adore more than any other: Pierre Poilievre.

Most party insiders, even those who are not big fans of Poilievre, will tell you the MP for Carleton inspires enormous loyalty from a large swath of the Conservative base. Some find that adoration puzzling, even maddening, in part because Poilievre has a rather thin resumé.

When Poilievre got himself elected for the first time, in 2004, he was only 25. He has been in Parliament ever since, which means he is a professional politician – an odd calling for one who appeals to populist distrust of politicians.

Poilievre has never held a job outside of politics. He was a small-c conservative activist at the University of Calgary, where he earned a bachelor’s degree, and right out of school he worked for a firm that did robocalls for politicians.

From an early age Poilievre was an acolyte of the free-enterprising, small-government school of neo-conservatism.

Like others of a similar bent, he was inspired by the philosophy of Russian-born U.S writer Ayn Rand, one of whose most famous dictums was: “There are two sides to every issue: one side is right and the other is wrong, but the middle is always evil.”

Poilievre has been one of the most vociferous Conservative MPs in support of the truckers’ convoy-cum-illegal-occupation in Ottawa. When he speaks to that issue, he channels another Ayn Rand quote, to wit:

“We are fast approaching the stage where the government is free to do anything it pleases, while the citizens may act only by permission; which is the stage of the darkest periods of human history, the stage of rule by brute force.”

In the 2004 election, the young and inexperienced Poilievre was something of a giant killer. He defeated then prime minister Paul Martin’s defence minister David Pratt, who was a Liberal star at the time.

When the Conservatives chose the unknown Poilievre to go up against Pratt, they likely thought he would be a sacrificial lamb. Then, as so often happens in politics, scandals nobody expected cropped up and sapped Liberal support.

Thus was a political career born.

Poilievre did not sit in the opposition front benches during the Martin minority government, from 2004 to 2006. Nor did he get into cabinet after the Conservatives took power in 2006.

But prime minister Harper liked the young MP’s hardcore ideological bent and sharp tongue, and made him a parliamentary secretary, a kind of understudy, to two of his most powerful ministers, John Baird and Jason Kenney. He also named him as parliamentary secretary to the prime minister.

Harper used his parliamentary secretaries as attack dogs. Rather than answer most questions posed to him in the House himself, or delegate senior ministers to do so, Harper would have his young, eager, and more-than-a-bit bloodthirsty parliamentary secretaries do the job.

Harper went through a series of parliamentary secretaries, some of whom, such as Jason Kenney, quickly ascended to cabinet. Of them all, the most effective attacker in question period was Poilievre.

When he got his promotion to Minister of Democratic Reform in 2013 Poilievre did not soften his style. As minister, Poilievre introduced and championed the one and only significant piece of legislation with which he is associated, the (so-called) Fair Elections Act.

Rarely has a piece of legislation borne a more Orwellian title. There was nothing fair about the Fair Elections Act. It was a brazen, U.S. Republican-style effort at voter suppression, which, among other things, sought to make it harder for the young, poor and marginalized to vote.

The Fair Elections Act tightened voter ID requirements, making it especially difficult for the millions of Canadians who have no driver’s license to qualify to vote. Prior to 2007, there had been no ID requirement whatsoever – and little evidence of any kind of fraud.

Poilievre’s act also made it easier for political parties to cheat, by muzzling chief electoral officers – they would not have the right to warn people when shenanigans such as phony robocalls happened during voting periods – and submitting the office that investigates election malfeasance to partisan political control.

Throughout the debate on his measure, Poilievre was aggressive and always on the attack.

He questioned the integrity of chief electoral officer Marc Mayrand on a number of occasions – knowing that as a non-partisan official Mayrand was powerless to defend himself.

In 2018, the Trudeau Liberals rolled back most of the noxious provisions of the Fair Elections Act. If Poilievre ever did become prime minister there’s a good chance he would try to sneak them back into force.

Trump-style leadership?

More recently, Poilievre has focused on a traditional libertarian message of small government, less regulation and lower taxes. He talks a lot these days about inflation which he claims is entirely fuelled by government spending.

But Poilievre is not loath to play in the angry populist sandbox – hence his enthusiastic and unqualified support for the mob currently occupying the centre of Ottawa.

Observers sometimes say Poilievre would provide Donald Trump-style leadership in Canada. But there are important ways in which rightward-leaning Canadian conservatives such as Poilievre differ from Trump.

For one thing, Trump departed from post-Second World War Republican orthodoxy on trade. He is an ardent protectionist, while Republicans have been free-traders for many decades.

And Trump is also an isolationist. That too is a rupture with what has been an article of faith for Republicans for seven decades. Unlike most other Republicans, the former U.S. president is not interested in projecting U.S. power globally, and has contempt for NATO, which is a U.S.-created military alliance.

However populist they might get, Canadian Conservatives are not going to quit being free-traders or stop supporting multilateral military alliances such as NATO. They will never be Trumpian in those ways.

The way in which Poilievre and the Canadian Conservative right are Trumpian is in their style as much as in their substance. It is a style characterized by relentless, merciless attacks, which give no quarter and recognize no compromise.

Like Trump, Poilievre plays politics only in one emotional key – the key of anger.

And it seems anger – and its close neighbour, resentment – is exactly what the Conservative base wants from a leader.

Karl Nerenberg

Karl Nerenberg joined rabble in 2011 to cover Canadian politics. He has worked as a journalist and filmmaker for many decades, including two and a half decades at CBC/Radio-Canada. Among his career highlights...