And they're off ...

House adjourns for the summer after bitter spring session

OTTAWA – Prime Minister Stephen Harper has returned from his European trip but he won’t have to endure another grilling in the House of Commons for a while.

All parties agreed late Tuesday night to end the most bitter spring sitting of Parliament since Harper’s Conservatives came to power more than seven years ago.

They packed it in a few days early after almost a month of late-night sittings, as the House of Commons calendar had MPs remaining at work in Ottawa through the end of this week. Proceedings had devolved into acrimonious mud-slinging.

The government remains under a potentially criminal cloud over a $90,000 cheque that was provided by the Prime Minister’s chief of staff to pay off the improper housing expense claims of Senator Mike Duffy.

The Conservatives responded with a loud counter-attack that involved questioning Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau’s past moonlighting as a paid public speaker and the driving habits of NDP Leader Tom Mulcair.

Harper spent the past week in Europe for a G8 summit, avoiding the scrutiny of the daily question period in the Commons, but he returned to Ottawa early Wednesday morning and will begin preparing for a Conservative party policy convention in Calgary later this month and an anticipated summer cabinet shuffle to shake up his front bench.

The Conservative majority mandate has hit the midway point to the fall 2015 federal election but the government is in a deep malaise.

Harper returns from Europe without a long-sought free trade deal with the European Union, and other promised trade agreements have yet to come to fruition.

The Conservatives’ heavy emphasis on oil and gas exports as a Canadian economic driver has also been undermined by the politics of pipeline construction, both in Canada and the United States.

But it has been the taint of scandal that has most hurt the government’s image this spring. Three Harper-appointed senators resigned from the Conservative caucus over various expense and personal failings and the fallout from Senate audits is not over yet.

The RCMP has confirmed a criminal investigation into the actions of Nigel Wright, Harper’s former chief of staff.

The government also continues to fend off accusations of election improprieties from the 2011 campaign, including an ongoing Elections Canada investigation into fraudulent robocalls in dozens of ridings across the country.

The governing party was also hurt by the departure of Brent Rathgeber, an Edmonton backbench MP whose scathing, insightful critique of the heavy-handed tactics of the Prime Minister’s Office summed up years of Conservative command and control tactics.

Rathgeber left the Conservatives to sit as an Independent after the government gutted his civil service salary disclosure bill, and his critique touched a nerve with an increasingly restless Conservative base.