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Main Canadian opposition party picks new leader to challenge PM Trudeau

OTTAWA (Reuters) - Canada’s main opposition Conservative Party on Monday elected Erin O’Toole, a former cabinet minister and armed forces veteran, to be its new leader and the primary challenger to Liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

Conservative Party of Canada Leader Erin O'Toole speaks after his win at the 2020 Leadership Election, in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada August 24, 2020. Sean Kilpatrick/Pool via REUTERS

O’Toole, 47, replaces Andrew Scheer, who failed to unseat Trudeau in an election last year even though his center-left Liberals had been weakened by political scandals.

O’Toole’s main task is to woo voters in the populous provinces of Ontario and Quebec, which together account for 59% of seats in the House of Commons, and largely shunned the party’s platform in 2015 and 2019 votes.

Darrell Bricker, chief executive officer of Ipsos Reid, said by email that O’Toole’s win “gets the Conservatives on track to mount a serious threat to the Trudeau Liberals,” in particular the fact he comes from Ontario.

While there is no election looming, Trudeau needs the support of at least one of three opposition parties to stay in power, and a crucial confidence vote on the government’s COVID-19 economic recovery plan is expected in late September.

“The Conservative Party will be ready for the next election and we will win the next election,” O’Toole said in his acceptance speech, delivered early in the morning after hours of technical delays.

O’Toole describes himself as a “true blue Conservative” and has vowed to “put Canada first” while helping families and the economy recover from the coronavirus crisis.

He beat out the better known Peter MacKay, who was a high-profile member of former Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government from 2006 to 2015.

O’Toole ran on a more right-wing platform than MacKay, promising to defund the Canadian Broadcasting Corp (CBC), the public broadcaster, crack down on crime and cut taxes.

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Frank Graves of polling firm Ekos said O’Toole would need to rely on the fact that center-left voters in Canada can choose between four parties.

“My guess is that he theoretically has the same available constituency in Quebec and Ontario that propelled Stephen Harper to success,” he said by email.

The Liberals quickly accused O’Toole of “wanting to take Canada backward”.

This, it said in a statement to supporters, “would mean making harmful cuts to services that Canadians count on, rolling back our work to fight climate change, weakening Canada’s gun control laws, and much more”.

Trudeau will face at least two confidence votes this year but looks set to survive with support from the left-leaning New Democratic Party (NDP).

Support for the Liberals surged as the government spent hundreds of billions of dollars in emergency aid during the pandemic, but they have lost ground recently amid an ethics scandal involving Trudeau and his former finance minister.

Liberals would get 36.4% of the votes if an election were held today, with the Conservatives on 29.9%, according to the CBC’s poll tracker, an aggregate of recent surveys.

O’Toole must boost support in urban centers such as Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal, which were Liberal strongholds in the past two national elections.

In his speech, O’Toole reached out to left-leaning voters, saying there was room for them in the party.

The son of a retired Ontario politician, O’Toole was first elected in 2012 and served as veterans affairs minister from February to November 2015.

He joined the Royal Canadian Air Force at 18, working as a helicopter navigator before transferring to the Canadian Forces reserves. He then trained and practiced as a lawyer.

Additional reporting by Kelsey Johnson in Ottawa; Editing by Robert Birsel, Clarence Fernandez, Paul Simao and Andrea Ricci

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