Yet O’Toole remains a nuanced and even somewhat cryptic figure. Elected to Parliament in an inconspicuous 2012 by-election — his first elected office — and holding a low-profile cabinet post (Veterans Affairs) in Ottawa’s previous Conservative administration for less than a year, he remains a mostly obscure politician. His party will accordingly have to spend considerable time “introducing him to Canadians,” as the standard jargon goes.
It may prove a complex task. He also ran for the Conservative leadership in 2017, when he sought to position himself as a moderate alternative to that race’s more flamboyant and hard-edged contenders. Present-day O’Toole accordingly faces the dual chore of assuring conservative voters that his “True Blue” persona is genuine, while also showing sensitivity to a broader public that has rejected his party twice in five years. It’s an assignment not dissimilar to the one faced by Andrew Scheer, O’Toole’s predecessor as party boss. Scheer was a consensus candidate who faced analogous challenges in trying to rebrand the party while preserving its philosophical traditions.
O’Toole, an avuncular Irish Catholic who has called for his party to be less “angry,” is probably more compelling and charismatic than the soft-spoken Scheer. But a considerably shorter political career (Scheer was elected at age 25, O’Toole at 39) also means a less defined record of causes and passions.
A former Air Command captain, O’Toole is a member of the old-fashioned monarchist subculture still present in the Canadian military, as well as some of the more eccentric corners of Canadian politics. In 2016, he named “the Queen” as the living person he most admires, and has promoted the cause of “CANZUK” — what UnHerd’s Aris Roussinos calls a “reheated Edwardian fantasy of a globe-spanning Anglosphere” that would unite Canada, New Zealand, Australia and Britain into some sort of federation.
A military background may similarly help explain O’Toole’s generally hawkish foreign policy views, which he leaned into during the campaign as a way of demonstrating his “True Blue” bona fides. His anti-China rhetoric has been some of the fiercest of any modern Canadian politician’s, and he will presumably seek to make this a key issue of contrast with a prime minister and Liberal Party with a long history of viewing Beijing’s rise with intrigue and excitement. He has been an unbending supporter of Israel, and promises Canada will be the next country to officially recognize Jerusalem as the Jewish state’s capital, should he win power.
Showing savviness to the right’s current anxieties, O’Toole has decried the “cancel culture” and “cultural Marxism” of Canadian campuses, promising to be a champion of free speech for the “voices of those who don’t conform to the left.” He has characterized renamed buildings and torn-down statues as akin to “erasing history,” and promises to privatize the publicly funded Canadian Broadcasting Corporation if elected. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s recent sweeping ban on multiple types of “assault style” firearms, meanwhile, would be overturned and revised.
But such positions — which in O’Toole’s glad-handing manner can come off as gimmicky and even insincere — also represent the low-hanging fruit of conservative populism. As in America, winning an election made up entirely of your party’s most dedicated base can be an exercise in partisan cynicism, and it’s possible to view O’Toole’s masterful campaign of rallying the 174,849 party members who participated in Sunday night’s vote as a mere stepping stone to the next, more ambiguous phase of his political career.
At present, Trudeau controls only a plurality of seats in Parliament, meaning an election could theoretically be forced at any time. O’Toole and his team clearly understand which issues resonate with Canadians on the right, yet the matter of what style of conservatism appeals to Canadians more broadly befuddles the best minds of the movement. MacKay at least represented a clear answer to that question. In beating him, O’Toole has an opportunity for more creativity but will also invite close scrutiny from all sides as he seeks to assert his understanding of the partisan status quo he was appointed to preserve.