Nigel Wright’s resignation from his position as Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s chief of staff suggests two possible paths ahead for the story of Wright’s strange decision to cut Sen. Mike Duffy a $90,000 cheque.
The first path starts from the perspective, best expressed in Scott Reid’s insightful column in yeterday’s Ottawa Citizen, that Wright dipped into his personal wealth to pay off Duffy’s illegitimately collected Senate expenses out of a perhaps overly developed sense of a dutiful political aide’s responsibility to stamp out fires before they threaten to engulf the boss.
If this interpretation—that Wright, largely acting alone, made a misguided but ultimately understandable move—eclipses other possible elements, then this story has reached its climax today.
The second path, the one that opposition parties will no doubt be energetically exploring, would of course allow that Wright’s own flawed judgement was a key factor, but insist that other players must have been involved in important ways.
Who exactly knew about what Wright was doing, and when did they know? Did they discuss how allowing Duffy to pay back what he owed might change the course or thrust of the Senate audit into Duffy’s expenses?
That’s a sloppy, bumpy, potentially jarring trail to travel, and so the Conservatives will be doing everything they can to take that first, shorter, smoother route, which basically ends with a shake of the head and a sad, “Who would have thought a guy as slick as Nigel would have to bow out this way? Intriguing character. Let’s move on.”
It’s worth keeping in mind how stubbornly unwilling the Harper Conservatives have been to allow resignations to leave the stamp of admitted wrongdoing on their government’s record, or to otherwise acknowledge lapses.
I’m thinking, for instance, of how long the Prime Minister allowed Gordon O’Connor to continue on as defence minister, even after O’Connor had to apologize to the House over misleading comments about Afghan detainees, before finally shuffling him to another cabinet role, rather than dumping him.
And of how, when they pleaded guilty in 2011 and were fined in the so-called “in and out” 2006 election campaign-financing fiasco, the Conservatives claimed that court settlement was—and this still takes one’s breath away—a “big victory” for the party.
So Wright’s resignation represents a new sort of test of the tactical acumen of the Harper team. Previously they have worked, with a great deal of success, to never accept as the premise of debate that big mistakes were made by senior Tories.
In this case, that conclusion is now undeniable. The question is whether, having allowed that uncomfortable starting point, Harper and his crew can still dictate the road they follow next.