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All eyes are on Pierre Poilievre as Conservatives prepare for leadership race – Toronto Star

Interim Conservative Leader Candice Bergen speaks in the House of Commons on Feb. 3, 2022.

Party insiders were abuzz Friday with speculation about whether the Ottawa MP would enter the contest to replace Erin O’Toole.

By Stephanie LevitzOttawa Bureau

Fri., Feb. 4, 20225 min. read

Article was updated 14 hrs ago

OTTAWA — Interim Conservative Leader Candice Bergen shoved aside some key allies of former leader Erin O’Toole on Friday as the party began to reshape its short- and long-term future.

Bergen replaced four O’Toole supporters on what’s known as the leadership team — MPs tasked with the day-to-day operations in Parliament — and also issued a statement seeking to moderate the party’s position on the ongoing protest against COVID-19 vaccination mandates that has paralyzed downtown Ottawa for days.

Sources told the Star Bergen was getting pressure on all sides to dial back the party’s support of the protesters’ call for an end to vaccination mandates.

Tensions in Ottawa were running high at the prospect of another massive weekend protest and among Tories, concerns are also mounting that identifying too closely with the demonstrators could do long-term political damage at a time when the party needs to start rebuilding.

With that process furiously underway, Conservative insiders were abuzz Friday with speculation about whether Ottawa MP Pierre Poilievre would run for the party leadership.

The pugilistic finance critic mulled a run in the last leadership race, only to bow out at the eleventh hour. Since then, his star has only risen. Poilievre is in demand as a fundraiser and speaker on the conservative circuit, and while he may mock Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s selfies, he can hardly move through a crowd without being asked to take them himself.

O’Toole’s decision to briefly remove Poilievre from the finance portfolio was among the grievances cited by Conservative MPs when they voted to oust O’Toole in a 73-45 vote.

In the waning hours of his leadership, O’Toole’s allies were also invoking Poilievre’s name and the fact he may not decide to run as a reason to continue to back O’Toole.

On Friday, Conservatives described him as a “juggernaut” — a force which crushes everything in its path — amid questions about what his entry might mean to the party’s looming leadership race.

The party has twice debated how to run a leadership contest since Stephen Harper stepped down after losing the 2015 election.

In 2017, contenders were given months to submit an entry fee of $100,000 and gather the support of 300 party members in 30 electoral districts from across the country. The relatively low bar was later cited as the reason there were as many as 14 people in the race.

When one of those who stepped forward was TV personality and celebrity businessman Kevin O’Leary — who had never before taken an active role in federal politics — there was much hand-wringing about an “outsider” moving into the big blue tent. O’Leary ultimately bowed out when it became clear that his lack of ability to speak French would be more of a barrier than he’d realized.

When it came time to set the rules for the next contest, organizers decided to up the ante — the entry fee was set at $300,000, 3,000 signatures were needed and candidates only had a matter of weeks to get that all together.

In part perhaps because the COVID-19 pandemic hit just months after the race was called, only four people ultimately cleared the bar: rookie MP Derek Sloan, political newcomer Leslyn Lewis, O’Toole and former Progressive Conservative party leader Peter MacKay.

Almost 18 months later, MacKay has still not finished paying the bills he ran up in that contest; on Thursday, he held a fundraiser with businessman Conrad Black and Danielle Smith, the former leader of Alberta’s populist Wildrose party.

That debt has fuelled speculation that MacKay might stay out of the next race, although a few blue hearts were set aflutter when the Toronto Sun published a column Friday in which he called for a strong Conservative party.

Given Poilievre’s fundraising heft and wide network of support, he’d have no trouble qualifying for the race, insiders say.

But the choice for the organizing committee this time is how wide it wants the field to be — and that field could also be shaped by what Poilievre decides to do, numerous Conservatives say.

“Do people stay out because he’s in? That’s the question,” one longtime party organizer told the Star.

On Friday, the party announced the first organizational steps for the race — a committee that will name the actual committee charged with setting the rules.

When it comes to when the votes will be cast, many are urging a speedy approach, eyeing September as the right time to have a new leader in place.

As an MP, the date may matter less to Poilievre than to others considering the job. Even if he lost, he’d still have his seat.

A similar calculus exists for fellow MP Leslyn Lewis, who entered the 2020 leadership contest as a total newcomer but ended up in a strong third-place finish thanks to rock solid support among the social conservative wing of the party. She’s widely expected to run again.

Anyone coming in from the private sector could go back to their old jobs, too.

Names in the mix include Mark Mulroney, former Quebec premier Jean Charest, and Quebec business mogul Vincenzo Guzzo.

Brampton Mayor Patrick Brown, a former MP and former leader of Ontario’s Progressive Conservatives, is already making calls to test the waters. He’s up for re-election this fall, so he will need to assess the risks of seeking the federal leadership — and what happens if he doesn’t win.

Brown’s name began surfacing as a potential successor even before O’Toole got the boot, when he decided to champion a fight against Quebec’s Bill 21, which prohibits people in positions of public authority from wearing religious symbols on the job.

The law gained renewed attention late last year after a teacher in Quebec who wears a hijab was removed from the classroom.

O’Toole’s position on the bill was too mild for some in his caucus, and some had been prepared to force the issue internally before he was fired.

Many told the Star they expect it to be on the table in the next leadership race.

“This is something that as Conservatives we should have been fundamentally against from the get-go,” said Kyle Seeback (Dufferin-Caledon).

“It’s discriminatory. It’s trampling religious freedom. And all we’re asking is that our party take the position that as this went to the Supreme Court, we would intervene. I don’t think that is a radical position. I think that is the right position.”


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