Stephen Harper's last chance to lead

After Senate scandals and a backbench revolt, Harper loyalists are looking for an agenda from the prime minister

Last chance to lead

Chris Wattie/Reuters

It wasn’t expected to be this way for Chris Alexander. Four years ago, the Tories recruited the celebrated diplomat—who, at just 34, had been named Canada’s ambassador to Afghanistan in 2003—to be a star candidate. After he won a southern Ontario seat in the 2011 election, he seemed destined to be a voice of foreign-policy expertise in a Conservative caucus better known for no-frills populism. Lately, though, he’s been deployed as an all-purpose defender of a government under heavy fire. As the Senate spending scandal raged, Alexander appeared often on TV to take the heat. When Edmonton MP Brent Rathgeber quit the Tory caucus last week to sit as an independent, Alexander was tasked with making the case that the government doesn’t mistreat its own backbenchers. He says he’s happy to pitch in as a “team player.” But he also talks tellingly about how Prime Minister Stephen Harper must soon reclaim control of the political agenda after months of coping with controversy.

In an analysis echoed by many Tory MPs and strategists, Alexander says revelations of improper spending by senators, along with rumblings of unrest among backbench Tory MPs, wouldn’t have so thoroughly dominated the news if the Conservatives were pushing fresh policies interesting enough to compete for attention. “The government has to pivot at this point, from focusing on the platform we all ran on in 2011—which I argue strongly we’ve done a lot of work on—toward framing up a new set of priorities, a new agenda we would take into the next election,” he told Maclean’s. In fact, Harper is widely expected to try to do just that in three steps: a major speech at a Conservative party convention late this month in Calgary, followed by a cabinet shuffle sometime this summer, capped by a Throne Speech in the fall that will reframe the Tory agenda heading toward the fixed date of Oct. 19, 2015, for the next federal election.

It’s a plan. And if all Harper had to do was outlast the uproar over some senators’ dubious expense claims, those three strides might look more than sufficient to carry him into the clear. But his troubles have worsened in ways that transcend the Senate’s woes. Two previously undoubted strengths of Harper’s governing formula are now being questioned as never before—his inner circle’s ability to manage sensitive files, and his hold on the loyalty of his own MPs. The Prime Minister’s Office looked almost farcically fallible over Nigel Wright, Harper’s powerful chief of staff, having to resign after cutting a $90,000 personal cheque to pay back Sen. Mike Duffy’s improperly claimed expenses. Then Rathgeber’s indignant exit set off unprecedented grumbling among sympathetic Tory backbenchers. (He quit after his own party’s leadership gutted his private member’s bill on public servants’ pay, legislation that would have required the government to publish senior bureaucrats’ salaries.)

Still, Harper loyalists, and they are legion, keep telling each other not to panic. Alexander points to a Canadian economy that continues to outpace those of countries such as the U.S., Britain and even Germany. Indeed, Statistics Canada reported 95,000 new jobs created in May, the best monthly total since 2002. Looking ahead, he touts initiatives designed to speed the path to jobs for students, immigrants and Employment Insurance recipients, and to the government’s ambitious trade agenda, including drawn-out negotiations toward a Canada-European Union trade deal. He’s far from alone in banking on economic themes resonating with voters long after the scandals have faded. “Of course, the top issue remains jobs and the economy,” says New Brunswick Tory John Williamson, one of several Conservative MPs who, earlier this spring, argued for more freedom for backbenchers to speak as they please in the House, without always being subject to party discipline. “This is the public’s top concern and it will remain ours.”

But NDP MP Charlie Angus, a prominent question period performer for the official Opposition on integrity-in-government issues, says Conservatives hoping to revert to back-to-basics economics messages fail to grasp what matters most about their own political brand. “They were elected on accountability,” Angus said, referring to the no-holds-barred Conservative assaults on the Liberals over the so-called sponsorship affair in 2004 and 2005, which led to Harper’s first election victory in 2006. He adds that Harper showed he’s lost touch with the sensitivity of his core supporters to ethics issues by having his officials defend Wright—even praise him—for several days before he accepted his top aide’s resignation. “They told ordinary Canadians, ‘Oh, it’s perfectly ethical for somebody who wanted to help to write a secret $90,000 cheque,’ ” Angus argued. “But average Canadians don’t know anybody like that—certainly, the Conservative base doesn’t know people like that.”

On parting company with the Conservatives, Rathgeber took the classic tack of blaming the Prime Minister’s advisers, rather than Harper himself, especially over the handling of Wright’s entanglement with Duffy. He said “the Prime Minister’s Office seems to be accountable to nobody, not even the Prime Minister,” and that PMO staffers in their 20s operate “opaquely and routinely without adult supervision.” Harper can’t afford to allow the perception to take root that he governs through a highly centralized coterie of unelected aides, dangerously disconnected from the rest of his own party. His next big chance to prove he’s still able to connect directly with Tories off Parliament Hill will come at the Conservative convention from June 27 to 29 in Calgary. While his speech hasn’t yet been officially slated, he’s expected to set the tone with an address on the opening evening of the three-day confab. Party delegates will have a chance to vent at sessions closed to the media on the second day, with policy resolutions coming to the floor for an open session on the final day.

Coming after such a bruising spring political season, the convergence of Tory true-believers on Calgary is taking on greater importance than is typical for this sort of policy convention. A veteran Conservative who has worked closely with Harper in the past, who asked not to be quoted by name, predicted the Prime Minister’s team will be working overtime to keep any dissent from erupting into the open sessions. “I expect it will be very tightly managed, in terms of what the media see,” he said. “What goes on behind closed doors is another matter.” He doubts Harper will announce anything particularly dramatic at the convention. “He will be inclined to ride this out, then shuffle his cabinet, prorogue Parliament and come back in the fall with some new policy positions and direction.”

As for any further backbench revolt in the wake of Rathgeber’s departure, senior Conservatives say even those MPs who harbour private grievances have good reason to maintain discipline. For a few, there’s the possibility of a promotion in that widely anticipated summer cabinet shuffle. Others are being reminded that, despite Rathgeber’s anger over the government’s handling of his public-sector salaries bill, backbench Tory MPs have been unusually successful in seeing their private members’ legislation actually passed into law. They range from a bill outlawing people from wearing masks during riots, to another allowing consumers to ship wine they’ve bought across provincial borders, to an act now before the Senate that would force unions to disclose details of their finances to public scrutiny. “It kind of runs counter to the theme of MPs as nobodies,” says Tory House leader Peter Van Loan. As for those MPs who remain agitated, some insiders shrug that off as unavoidable for a party that’s been in power for more than seven years. “We’re in our third term,” says one Conservative strategist. “It doesn’t surprise me that there’s some discontent.”

In the end, Harper’s ability to maintain control will probably depend on whether his troops continue to see him as their best bet for winning the next campaign. He’s being seriously tested. Polls have put the Liberals in first place since Justin Trudeau won their leadership in April. NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair scored the praise of pundits, at least, for his question period interrogations of Harper on Wright’s personal bailout of Duffy.

It all adds up to a watershed moment for Harper’s Tories. Alexander predicts Calgary will showcase the “strength of our organization and of our ideas.” Both look urgently in serious need of some mid-term refurbishing.