Conservatives eager to keep Erin O’Toole on as party leader say there is enough caucus support to dump MPs who back a Saskatchewan senator’s petition calling for an expedited leadership review.
Senior Conservative sources with knowledge of caucus matters told CBC News that — in an attempt to discourage caucus members who are considering signing that petition — 24 Conservative MPs have pledged to sign a letter triggering the Reform Act, which would then enable a vote to expel members who support Sen. Denise Batters’ petition.
Batters launched the petition Monday, saying she and other party members have lost faith in O’Toole. She argued the party experienced “significant losses” in the fall campaign after O’Toole flip-flopped on major issues such as carbon pricing, firearms and conscience rights. She said she wants members to have a say on O’Toole’s future prior to the planned 2023 party convention.
Party rules require an automatic leadership review at the first national convention following a failed federal election campaign. Batters said she wants that vote to happen in the next six months.
Only a day after the anti-O’Toole effort was launched, a spokesperson for Batters said the petition has collected 2,000 signatures already.
The Reform Act — legislation drafted by Conservative MP Michael Chong and adopted by Parliament — is designed to give MPs more decision-making power in a parliamentary system that has become increasingly centralized around party leaders and their teams.
One of the act’s provisions is a mechanism to kick MPs out of the caucus. At least 20 per cent of caucus members must formally request an expulsion vote. If enough agree, a secret ballot vote is then held to decide the fate of that MP.
Conservative sources, who were not authorized to speak publicly, said at least 70 MPs have indicated they would vote to expel MPs who are not supportive of O’Toole — enough to meet the minimum 50 per cent required under the act.
The sources would not name any of the MPs who pledged to sign the letter and CBC News has not independently confirmed that number.
A spokesperson for O’Toole said the leader wants Conservatives to focus on the economic future of Canada.
“(On Wednesday), Canadians will get more devastating news about Justin Trudeau’s inflation and cost of living crisis. The economy – that is our focus. Nothing else,” said Mathew Clancy, the associate director of media relations.
O’Toole himself voiced support for the Reform Act last month.
WATCH: Sen. Batters rejects request to withdraw petition calling for O’Toole’s ouster
In addition to giving caucus the power to kick an MP out of caucus, the Reform Act also gives MPs the power to prompt a leadership review.
“I’ve supported the Reform Act since Michael Chong brought it in. I voted for it in 2015, in 2019 and I encouraged people to vote for it today,” O’Toole told reporters ahead of an Oct. 5 caucus meeting where Conservative MPs were to decide whether the Reform Act would be in effect for their caucus in this session of Parliament.
“This is not about a Sword of Damocles hanging over my head. We’re united as a team. This is about having a fair and transparent process that a team must have when it respects one another, for electing a chair, for making determinations about membership in the caucus and about leadership,” O’Toole said. Conservative MPs ultimately adopted all of the act’s provisions.
While MPs who support her position may face expulsion, Batters is pressing on with her petition. Under the party’s constitution, a referendum on any matter can be launched if five per cent of Conservative members sign a petition calling on the party to poll the membership on the topic through a referendum.
Late last night, however, party president Rob Batherson said the petition is out of order.
“The question you are proposing to ask in a referendum does not adhere to the Constitution of the Conservative Party of Canada,” Batherson said in a social media post.
Other Conservative insiders tell CBC News that Batherson is wrong and that Batters is following the rules. That could set up a battle before the party’s national council, the governing body that will decide if the petition can proceed as planned.
Several Conservative MPs took to Twitter to try to discredit Batters and the petition.
‘This helps Justin Trudeau’
Michelle Rempel Garner, the party’s natural resources critic, said she was “profoundly disappointed” in Batters for launching the petition. She called it an unwanted distraction that will divert attention from more pressing concerns.
Melissa Lantsman, the newly elected MP from Thornhill, said Batters needs to “smarten up.”
“We have a cost of living crisis, out of control inflation, a war on Canada’s energy sector and a waning reputation on the world stage. That’s just a start. This helps Justin Trudeau, not Canadians,” she said.
Batters did get support today from a high-profile ex-MP — former Conservative national caucus chair David Sweet.
Sweet, who supported O’Toole in the party’s 2020 leadership race, said the harsh criticism Batters has faced is unwarranted.
“With thousands already signed onto the petition and dozens of former colleagues expressing concerns to me directly, this is far more than one senator expressing frustration with leadership,” he said.