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.
O'Toole replaces Andrew Scheer, who failed to unseat Trudeau in an election last year. The right-of-center party struggled in the populous provinces of Ontario and Quebec, which together account for 59% of seats in the House of Commons.
O'Toole beat out the better known Peter MacKay, who co-founded the party in 2003 and was a high-profile member of former Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper's government, and two other candidates.
While there is no vote 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, a 47-year-old father of two, 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.
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 in recent weeks amid an ethics scandal involving Trudeau and his former finance minister, Bill Morneau.
Liberals would get 36.4% of the votes if an election were held today, while the Conservatives would win 29.9%, according to the Canadian Broadcasting Corp's (CBC) poll tracker, an aggregate of recent surveys.
One of O'Toole's challenges will be to lure back voters in urban centers such as Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal, which were Liberal strongholds in the past two national elections.
"And the winner is Justin Trudeau," tweeted Karl Belanger, the NDP's former national director.
O'Toole promised to defund the CBC, the public broadcaster, crack down on crime and cut taxes.
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.
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