Flirting with disaster: an exclusive excerpt from Paul Wells

After the Senate scandal, Stephen Harper faced the greatest test of his power yet. The story of his fight back.

Chris Wattie/Reuters

Chris Wattie/Reuters

Chris Wattie/Reuters

Chris Wattie/Reuters

Christinne Muschi/Reuters

Christinne Muschi/Reuters

A year before the 2015 election, Prime Minister Stephen Harper found himself in the fight of his life, trailing in the polls and hoping to win a fourth consecutive election victory. Maclean’s political editor Paul Wells told Harper’s story in his award-winning book The Longer I’m Prime Minister: Stephen Harper and Canada, 2006—. This week sees the release of a paperback edition with a new chapter. In this exclusive excerpt, Wells shows how Harper began to fight back after his chief of staff, Nigel Wright, resigned over a personal cheque he wrote to Sen. Mike Duffy.

The fates piled new disaster on top of old. Regular bursts of ineptitude from Harper’s entourage complicated the comeback struggle, as did the boss’s own majestic cussedness. His mood as he set about clawing his way back was appropriately grim.

In February 2013, Harper had begun ordering drafts of a keynote speech he intended to deliver on June 27 at the biennial Conservative convention in Calgary. Harper’s convention speeches were always important; a decade after he and others had created the modern Conservative party, he was still the only guy who really knew the lyrics to the song. This speech was supposed to set the tone for the last half of the Conservative majority mandate. It was to say, approximately: “We have had to struggle, but the fruits of our labours are at hand. Canada is a better place for having elected Conservative governments, and the best lies ahead.”

But on June 19, the heavens opened. Southern Alberta was pounded by rain, then by the worst flooding in decades. There was no way the Conservatives could hold a convention in a waterlogged Calgary. The party postponed the event until November.

In the Commons, [NDP Leader] Tom Mulcair steadily whacked Harper with a rhetorical hammer. Mulcair came from Quebec’s Assemblée nationale, where question period is a leisurely affair featuring long strings of questions from the opposition leader to the premier amid looser time limits than in the House of Commons. Now, Mulcair imported the Quebec City manner to Ottawa. The Opposition leader normally asks three of the first five questions to the PM allotted to his party. That’s how Jack Layton did it, and [Michael] Ignatieff and [Stéphane] Dion and Harper himself, and countless other tormentors of power before them. There’s no rule limiting a leader to a given number of questions and, sometimes, on a day full of excitement, an opposition leader would take all five opening questions. But there’s strong incentive to spread the TV time around to as many MPs as possible so the voters back home see them giving the government the gears. Especially the newer MPs, and no party had more rookie MPs than Mulcair’s NDP. Too bad for those rookies. They would have to make do with weekend fish fries at the Dante Club hall back in the riding. Mulcair had personal business with the Prime Minister.

On May 28, Harper’s first question period after Nigel Wright’s resignation, Mulcair asked Harper the first 16 NDP questions—five in a row off the top, then two more after the Liberals got their turn, then two more in the next round, and on and on—picking at the Prime Minister’s account of the goings-on at the PMO with prosecutorial zeal. The next day, Mulcair asked the first 14 NDP questions. The next time, [as] the two men faced each other across the Commons’ centre aisle, Mulcair had 14 more questions. And 14 the day after, and 14 the day after that.

It was a heroic feat of parliamentary prowess. Mulcair demonstrated attention to detail, consistency of message and lust for political blood on a par with any of the great opposition leaders of the past. But, on any given day, he was lucky if three seconds of his thundering performances showed up on the evening news. The spotlight kept being stolen by this . . . other guy.

Justin Trudeau was born on Christmas Day in 1971, the son of Canada’s 15th prime minister and of Minerva, the Roman goddess of wisdom. In Perugia, a scholar was startled to discover that Nostradamus had predicted the child’s arrival in 1547. Wherever he walked as a young man, flowers pushed their heads above the soil and blossomed into bright-yellow happy faces. When he stuck out a finger, cartoon birds would land on it and chirp songs from Walt Disney movies. His eyes, how they twinkled! His dimples, how merry! His skin smelled naturally of Corinthian leather and his nose could open beer bottles. On April 14, five weeks before Wright left the PMO, Trudeau won the Liberal leadership, winning 147 per cent of the vote on the first ballot and scattering his enemies before him like smoke.

Oh, how the other parties hated him.

The Conservatives, at least, believed they were prepared for Trudeau’s arrival. “I’ve seen the ads,” one Conservative told me a week before Trudeau won the leadership. “Chk-chk.” He mimed cocking a pistol with his thumb and forefinger. “Pow.” This fellow was quite sure a barrage of mocking ads would make short work of the dauphin. That was how it always worked, wasn’t it? Stéphane Dion: chk-chk pow. Michael Ignatieff: chk-chk pow.

The new Conservative ads started airing within hours after Trudeau became leader. They showed stock footage of Justin with silly facial hair, with his shirt off, rolling his eyes, saying goofy things (“Quebecers are better”). “He’s in way over his head,” the standard-issue Conservative TV-ad voice-over guy said. There was a website:

Trudeau promptly said something in public that seemed, at least to the Conservatives, to corroborate their claims about his limited competence. The day after the leadership convention, as [CBC journalist] Peter Mansbridge was preparing to interview Trudeau in Ottawa, horrifying news broke. Two pressure cookers loaded with explosive and shrapnel had detonated at the Boston Marathon, killing three people and injuring hundreds of others. In their interview, Mansbridge asked Trudeau for his reaction.

Trudeau said that if he were in charge, he’d first console the bereaved and injured. But “over the coming days,” he added, it would be necessary to “look at root causes . . . We don’t know if it was terrorism, or a single crazy, or a domestic issue or a foreign issue—all those questions. But there is no question that this happened because of someone who feels completely excluded. Someone who feels completely at war with innocence, at war with society.”

Harper could hardly believe his ears. He long been warning that Liberals’ screwy moral wiring would lead them to blame victims and absolve criminals. It seemed to him that Trudeau had done just that. Two days after the bombing, the Prime Minister emerged from [former British prime minister] Margaret Thatcher’s funeral in London and commented on Trudeau’s interview to reporters who had not asked him any questions about Trudeau’s interview. “When you see this kind of violent act, you do not sit around trying to rationalize it or make excuses for it or figure out its root causes,” Harper said. “You condemn it categorically and, to the extent you can deal with the perpetrators, you deal with them as harshly as possible.”

It was the kind of straight, hard pop on the snoot that used to send Ignatieff to the mat. And it wasn’t as though Trudeau could compensate for that shaky interview performance with some other masterstroke elsewhere. In question period, where his first question always had to wait until after Mulcair had finished asking his five (or 14), Trudeau never found a way to rock Harper. Not ever. He was a distraction from the high-stakes confrontation between Prime Minister and Opposition leader, like a waiter who barges in on a couple’s first date to scrawl his name in crayon on a paper tablecloth.

But here’s the funny thing. Within days of Trudeau’s arrival as leader, the Liberals climbed 10 points in national polls. Neither Conservative derision nor Mulcair’s conspicuous displays of competence in question period could shake that lead. A year later, the Liberals were still in first place.

Nor were question period and the polls the only venues for Conservative grief. On June 17, police in Montreal arrested Saulie Zajdel in a corruption sweep that also featured the arrest of Michael Applebaum, the city’s mayor. A former Montreal city councillor of long standing, Zajdel had been the Conservatives’ star candidate, assigned to defeat Irwin Cotler in Mount Royal in the 2011 election. By Cotler’s own reckoning, Zajdel had beaten him among the riding’s Jewish voters, and lost only because Cotler had sufficient support in other parts of the community. But Zajdel wouldn’t get another shot at it: Now it seemed that when the next election campaign began in 2015, Saulie would be indisposed.

In July, Harper had another chance to indicate his government was taking a fresh new direction. He shuffled his cabinet, ejecting a few loyal ministers who seemed old or out of place (Peter Kent) or ethically scuffed (Vic Toews). He promoted a bunch of younger MPs to their first cabinet portfolios: Shelly Glover, Candice Bergen, Kellie Leitch, Michelle Rempel.

But the new ministers did not sound much different from the old ones. The cabinet shuffle had no perceptible effect on the polls or on the morose mood among Conservatives.

Much later, I persuaded a Harper loyalist to talk to me about the post—Nigel-crisis months. “There was a sense that we couldn’t get past it,” the loyalist said. “We could announce justice legislation. We could announce the budget. We could shuffle the cabinet. We could do anything and everything we thought or imagined. But we couldn’t break free from the subject matter of the Senate . . . We were feeling shackled, and that was incredibly frustrating.”

It got to a point by the end of summer, this person said, where some Conservatives were asking the same question the newspaper columnists had asked: Would a change at the top make a difference? “If you can’t break free, then the question has to come: ‘What will break us free from this isue? And is getting rid of certain people—perhaps the leader . . . is that how we get past this issue?’ ”

The answer, it was generally acknowledged, was No. “Nobody was stupid enough to believe that Stephen Harper can be replaced. That was never really an option.” So Harper’s fate and the Conservatives’ continued to be essentially synonymous. There was little consolation in the thought. “It was just this nagging frustration.”

Excerpted from The Longer I’m Prime Minister: Stephen Harper and Canada, 2006—, paperback version now on sale. Copyright © 2014 Paul Wells. Published with permission of Random House Canada.