Tories focus their attention on leadership speculation

Published Dec. 9, 2013, in The Waterloo Region Record.

Is Stephen Harper preparing to vacate the political stage?

On the face of it, the suggestion is absurd. Harper is currently where he has wanted to be his entire political career — very much in personal control of a majority Conservative government. He had to battle to get to that summit, falling short three times before finally making it in 2011.

Why would he give it up, just past the halfway mark of his four-year mandate? That’s a good question. Yet rumours swirl inside the closed world of Ottawa politics.

(When I think of Ottawa, as I do from time to time, I think of it as a terrarium — a self-sustaining environment that exists under a sealed glass dome. Politicians come and go; political parties rise and fall; issues appear and disappear; and gossip graduates to rumour, then to prediction, only to vanish overnight. And all of this happens in splendid isolation from the world where Canadians live, work and vote.)

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The terrarium has been a busy place of late. John Ivison, the Ottawa-based columnist for the National Post, made the rounds of the pre-Christmas parties on the Hill, always a fertile breeding ground for loose talk and speculation. A shrewd observer, he was struck by how few Conservatives on the party circuit were talking about the Senate scandal, the dominant issue of the fall term. Instead, they were talking about the prime minister and the future of their party.

“One person,” Ivison reported, “said that Stephen Harper’s first trip to Israel was originally scheduled for March and was brought forward (to January). Big decisions are being put off, the Conservative said, and there is open speculation that Mr. Harper will return from the Middle East in triumph and announce he plans to resign as Prime Minister before Parliament returns for the spring session.”

Other pundits beg to differ, marginally. They predict the prime minister will stay on until late 2014, then announce his departure in time for a leadership convention in the spring of 2015. In this scenario, the new leader would ride the momentum of the convention to victory in the general election scheduled for October 2015.

What are the reasons for Harper’s departure? There are the self-inflicted wounds from the botched Senate scandal coverup, which has seriously compromised the prime minister’s credibility, and more bad news is likely to come. There is the apparent rebirth of the Liberal party under Justin Trudeau as swing voters who went with the NDP in 2011 move back to the Liberals in the belief that the Grits have the better chance to bring down the fatigued Tories. There are the polls, which suggest the Trudeau phenomenon is not abating. A new Ipsos Reid poll puts the Liberals six points up on the Conservatives (35 per cent to 29); other polls have a larger Liberal lead.

There is a sense among Tories that the best they can hope for under Harper is a return to minority government — not an appealing prospect for a party that has enjoyed the power and privilege of a majority.

Finally, inside the terrarium, unrest is increasing within the government caucus and cabinet. These are people who have followed Harper not out of love, but out of respect and perhaps fear.

Now they are starting to think about life, and their careers, after Harper.

They are starting to talk about leadership succession. They are talking about Jason Kenney, the minister of employment and social development, who has been strikingly successful in his efforts to sweep minority groups into the Conservative tent. But there are three strikes against Kenney. He is from Calgary, like Harper, and two Albertans in a row seem one too many. He wears his social conservatism too prominently on his sleeve. And his opposition to abortion would not win over women voters.

What the Conservatives want is someone who is wedded to the right, but when required can talk like a progressive. Someone like, say, Stephen Harper.