OTTAWA — A topsy-turvy time for federal Conservatives enters a new phase Wednesday with interim leader Candice Bergen set to preside over the first formal gathering of MPs since they dumped Erin O’Toole last week.
But while Conservatives put forward a united call Tuesday for the end of COVID-19 vaccination mandates — buoyed by a Liberal MP breaking ranks with the government over the issue — fundamental challenges remain behind the scenes.
One will be visible Wednesday just through the windows of the room where the Tory caucus usually meets: truckers who have been blocking major streets around Parliament Hill for 12 days and show no signs of going home.
Ahead of the protesters’ arrival in Ottawa, Conservative caucus members were publicly united in their support for the truckers’ cause — that vaccination mandates for cross-border drivers were unfair and would cripple their industry.
Even as the trucks rolled in — and racist, destructive and harassing behaviour popped up during the early days — many remained aligned with them; two days before O’Toole got the boot and she took over, Bergen sat down for dinner with two of those camping out in downtown Ottawa.
But as the demonstrators have dug in, and as their impact on the day-to-day movement of Ottawa residents has taken its toll, the tone of the response from some Tories is shifting.
What’s happening is no longer a protest but a blockade, and that’s beyond the scope of people’s fundamental right to have their voices heard, said longtime Tory MP Michael Chong.
The protesters need to go home, Chong said, but the politicians need to think deeply about the frustration that brought the “Freedom Convoy” to Parliament Hill.
“We have gotten to this place because we have not been serious. We have not been serious about the rule of law,” he said during an emergency debate on the issue in the House of Commons.
“We have not been serious about ensuring our democratic institutions reflect the diversity of views in this country. We have not been serious about domestic policy. We have not been serious about foreign policy. It is time we got serious.”
The speech immediately set Tory tongues wagging about whether Chong would to take another run at the party leadership, as he did in 2017. Asked Tuesday, the member for Wellington—Halton Hills would only tell the Star that he is thinking about how he can best serve his country.
Others doing some thinking include Chong’s caucus colleague Leslyn Lewis, who placed third in the 2020 leadership race; Tasha Kheiriddin, a prominent Conservative thinker and strategist; Brampton Mayor Patrick Brown; and former leadership contender and Progressive Conservative party leader Peter MacKay.
Meanwhile, Pierre Poilievre, the party’s finance critic, is expected to be shuffled out of that job after launching his campaign to lead the party.
Leadership contenders generally don’t get to hold critic positions that would give them a higher profile during the race, although no one within the party thinks Poilievre needs that to galvanize his supporters.
His launch video posted late Saturday night has attracted 3.9 million views on Twitter alone, and he already has numerous endorsements from fellow MPs.
Poilievre’s organization is also already collecting signatures in support of his nomination, despite the fact no formal rules of the race have been set, and likely won’t be for at least a few weeks.
The rules will also include a cut-off for membership sales to would-be voters. Efforts to boost the ranks of card-carrying Tories have already begun.
In a post-election review conducted for the party, one recommendation was to make memberships free to expand the party’s base, but it’s unlikely that recommendation — or any other from the review — will be implemented on Bergen’s watch.
“An interim leader is limited in what they can do to change the party or the mechanics — that’s not the job they were elected to do,” said Garry Keller, who served as chief of staff to Rona Ambrose when she was interim leader.
“The job is to provide a steady hand on the wheel and turn the party over in better shape than when they came into the position.”
Bergen has already moved swiftly to put her stamp on the front benches of the party, pushing aside long-time O’Toole loyalists in favour of a fresh team. A larger shuffle of critics prompted by Poilievre’s move is likely as well.
Another issue potentially on the table for Wednesday’s meeting is whether Bergen will bring Sen. Denise Batters back into the fold. Batters was kicked out of caucus by O’Toole for demanding a leadership review, and her dismissal exacerbated tensions within the party’s ranks.
When it comes to charting a policy path forward for the party, Bergen will also be navigating a tricky course, said Keller.
“She has a delicate balancing act: reflect where the caucus and party is at as in policy pronouncements and in communications, but not to make radical policy decisions that have major impacts on platform and policy in the future that could bind the hands of a future leader.”