OTTAWA — The fight to win the leadership of his party could be nothing compared to what Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole has ahead: keeping his party together as he tries to win over voters who haven't voted for it recently.
Caucus morale is buoyed by this week's House of Commons vote in favour of a motion declaring a genocide against Uighur Muslims in China.
But the Tories remain stuck behind the Liberals in the polls and the Liberal war room is revving up to keep them there.
The Tories' hawkish view on China stands as a point of demarcation between O'Toole and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, so while the Tories lauded the vote Monday as a victory for human rights, it's also one for them.
That Liberal MPs, but not cabinet, voted with the Tories on the motion underscores the point, O'Toole argued after the vote.
"The fact that Mr. Trudeau did not even show up to be accountable is a terrible sign of leadership," he said.
That he'd take a strong stance on China was a key promise O'Toole made in his bid for leadership last year.
But how he's following through on others is emerging as a question as O'Toole marks exactly six months in the post.
Among the issues: a fear he'll backtrack on a promise dear to the heart of the party, especially in the West: repealing the federal carbon tax.
MPs not authorized to publicly discuss caucus deliberations say many are concerned about O'Toole's stated support for a Liberal bill aimed at cutting Canada's net emissions of greenhouse gases to zero by 2050.
Most environment and economics experts say getting there without a carbon tax is possible, but would cost more because the regulations needed to achieve the goal would ultimately be more expensive.
For a party fixated on the bottom line, which path to take without inflaming the base is a tricky choice.
O'Toole's spokesperson says he remains committed to scrapping the federal carbon tax, though O'Toole himself no longer includes it in election-style speeches to general audiences, nor would he repeat the commitment to reporters when asked last week.
Another marquee promise, to defund the CBC, is also in the wind.
Spokesperson Chelsea Tucker didn't directly answer this week when asked if he would still do that if the Conservatives win power.
All outlets need a fair playing field, she said in an email.
"Conservatives are committed to ensuring the best path forward for Canada’s news sector."
The promises on the carbon tax and on defunding the CBC were key planks for O'Toole's leadership campaign because he needed the Tory base on side to win.
But as he seeks now to broaden the appeal of the party, many in caucus are expressing frustration with his approach.
Recent meetings have been laced with tension and demands for change, several told The Canadian Press.
Underpinning the grumbling: how kicking controversial MP Derek Sloan out of caucus played out, the appearance of a demotion from the important finance-critic post for wildly popular MP Pierre Poilievre, and frustration over the Conservatives' overarching pitch to the public.
In some instances, MPs have issued their own statements when official lines out of O'Toole's office didn't jibe with their own points of view.
MPs Rachael Harder and Jeremy Patzer publicly lashed out over new Liberal measures restricting travel to fight the COVID-19 pandemic, calling them draconian and an overreach, while O'Toole's office stuck with a call for compassion.
Meanwhile, some MPs see focusing on anything but vaccines against COVID-19 a waste of political energy, including the recent vote on China. Others argue that O'Toole's stated focus on jobs — it was the reason Poilievre has a new title as jobs and industry critic, O'Toole says — means little without ideas to advance.
O'Toole's team has partially blamed lacklustre polling on an inability to get out in front of people during the pandemic, and have tried to counter it with ad blitzes.
Those efforts are also aimed at defining O'Toole before the Liberals come up with a narrative of their own.
The two clashed Wednesday. As O'Toole marked six months as leader with a new ad portraying him as a serious worker, the Liberals jumped on a clip from his leadership race where he suggests he wants to put the prime minister in a portable toilet.
O'Toole's office discounted the tactic as another effort by the Liberals to distract from their record, calling on them to focus instead on vaccines.
There are other signs of a disconnect emerging between O'Toole and at least some of his caucus.
One is over an upcoming vote in the House of Commons on a ban on conversion therapy. O'Toole says he is against the practice of forcing those questioning their gender or sexual identities into therapy but it's a free vote for his MPs.
The members of his caucus who oppose the ban are organizing their own strategy sessions to frame their planned votes, work that includes O'Toole's deputy chief of staff.
And the well-organized social-conservative wing of the party is gearing up for the Tories' March policy convention.
The effort includes snapping up delegate spots so rapidly that some party stalwarts didn't get one, raising fears the social conservatives will be mighty enough to get controversial policies passed.
Competition for spaces is a healthy sign, said party spokesman Cory Hann.
"We have had more people interested in our convention than at any time in history, so of course there's going to be competitive delegate-selection meetings right across the country, which just shows how much interest there is in our party," he said.
O'Toole said recently what the polls show today doesn't matter.
"The Conservatives got Canada through the last global recession, better than any other country, without raising taxes. That is what we will do," he said.
"And I think the polls will be on election day when Canadians want to choose that strong future."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 24, 2021.
Stephanie Levitz, The Canadian Press