OTTAWA–Conservative MP Derek Sloan’s controversial attack on Canada’s top public health official has moved from an internal party skirmish into a proxy war between leadership candidates Erin O’Toole and Peter MacKay.
On the surface, the controversy about Sloan questioning Dr. Theresa Tam’s loyalty to Canada raises questions of race, political propriety and criticism of the government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
But it doesn’t take too much scratching to see the bare-knuckle leadership politics underneath.
When the party’s Ontario caucus voted Tuesday to demand an apology from the rookie MP and leadership hopeful, only two of the 36 MPs voted against the motion — Sloan himself, and O’Toole. The O’Toole campaign declined to confirm that fact, first reported by the CBC, but two Conservative Party sources have.
So why would O’Toole vote against asking Sloan to apologize?
The thinking within Conservative circles goes like this: MacKay has enough of an advantage in fundraising, endorsements, and name recognition that O’Toole can’t secure a first-ballot win against him. Instead, O’Toole’s strategy will focus on cobbling together support from the corners of the Conservative tent, where MacKay is not so popular.
Enter Sloan, the socially conservative MP for Hastings-Lennox and Addington.
O’Toole is not a social conservative, but his campaign has put emphasis on welcoming all the disparate factions that make up the Conservative movement. O’Toole needs social conservatives to make him their second or third choice in the party’s ranked ballot system, after Sloan and Leslyn Lewis, in order to upset MacKay.
An O’Toole supporter, who spoke on the condition they not be named to discuss internal party politics, described the situation as fraught.
“I think we’re getting into a dangerous place where we’re talking about party unity, here. We could be splitting the party in half,” the supporter said, adding that kicking Sloan out “would drive huge numbers of the party out.”
MacKay, meanwhile, is trying to steamroll his way to a first-ballot win. Sloan and Lewis could complicate that — both are running as social conservatives, and while social conservatives are only one faction within the party, they excel at organization and fundraising.
MacKay drew the ire of social conservatives when he said after the 2019 election that their issues hung “like a stinking albatross” around the neck of outgoing Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer. That was a reference to Scheer’s difficulty fielding questions about his personal positions on same-sex marriage and abortion.
If Sloan is ejected from the Conservative caucus and the leadership race, he would be the third candidate with social conservative views disqualified from seeking the party’s top job. If the social conservatives are frustrated enough not to cast a ballot by Aug. 21, that would likely work to MacKay’s advantage.
Which brings us to the emergency caucus meeting on Tuesday, where Ontario Conservatives — many of them MacKay supporters — voted to demand Sloan apologize or face a vote to expel him from caucus.
“Someone has been leaking detailed information on what happened in the CPC’s Ontario caucus earlier this week,” wrote longtime MP Scott Reid on Twitter Wednesday, referring to the Star’s reporting on the meeting.
“Forcing Sloan out of caucus means he’s out of the leadership race. But since he won’t win anyway, why bother? Answer: a finalist who can’t capture the (second) ballot support of Sloan voters benefits if there are no (first) ballot Sloan votes.”
Reid can hardly be described as a MacKay supporter — the two men have a history of bad blood going back to the merger of the Progressive Conservatives and the Canadian Alliance, when there was a tense disagreement about how the newly formed Conservative Party’s leader should be chosen. But he also suggested that he brought forward to motion to demand Sloan apologize.
“After all, it was (purportedly) my motion, demanding the retraction of his rhetoric that was leaked. But whether we like the form of his retraction or not, he has retracted. The bigger issue is the leak itself,” Reid wrote.
The Ontario caucus includes at least 12 members who have endorsed MacKay, and only two who have endorsed O’Toole. While that is not the only consideration in voting to reprimand Sloan — non-aligned MPs like Reid, Michael Chong and Peter Kent have already made their objections to Sloan’s comments public — the leadership race undoubtedly played a factor.
The Conservative national caucus met Friday afternoon, just two days after Sloan refused the call by Ontario caucus to apologize for his attack on Tam. Sloan’s campaign told the Star Friday night that he remains a Conservative MP after that meeting.
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Whatever the outcome, the leak about confidential caucus discussions that preceded it will remain a grave offence for Reid.
“If an MP leaked this, then that MP — not Derek Sloan — should be the one facing expulsion,” wrote Reid, who’s known as a stickler for parliamentary procedure and precedent.
“And if a leadership candidate authorized his team to make the leak, then he should be reconsidering whether he is fit to lead the party.”
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