Stephen Harper won't stop believing

Even though 2013 was dominated by scandal and retirement rumours, the PM isn’t going anywhere

Ben Stansall/AFP/Getty Images

As a spokesman for Stephen Harper for nearly a decade, Dimitri Soudas could be charming and boyish at times, confrontational at others. He was fond of phoning reporters’ superiors, clambering ever higher up a news organization’s pecking order until he found somebody who could either make unflattering coverage of Harper stop or make the reporter hurt for committing it. Halfway through the 2011 election campaign, Soudas had managed to tick so many reporters off that a second, more congenial spokesman was pressed into emergency tour-bus service to act as a buffer between Soudas and scribes.

But while Soudas was on his staff, Harper went from being the leader of a dispirited Canadian Alliance in 2002 to leader of a Conservative majority government in 2011. The Prime Minister clearly associates the scrappy ex-Montrealer with success. And so it came to pass that only two years after Soudas left Harper’s service, Harper called Soudas in early December and asked him to hurry back to Ottawa to serve as executive director of the Conservative Party of Canada. His mandate: get the Conservatives into shape for an election that will, in theory, be held in 2015.

Such personnel changes are rarely the object of public announcements by a party that fetishizes secrecy about its inner workings. But the Conservatives announced this one, because part of its purpose seemed to be to send a signal: Harper isn’t going anywhere.

After a rocky 2013 that was dominated by an RCMP investigation into a decision by Harper’s former chief of staff, Nigel Wright, to cover Sen. Mike Duffy’s expense debts with a personal cheque, some columnists had begun speculating that Harper might quit politics early in 2014. Soudas’s return seems to have been accelerated to quell those rumours.

Prime ministers do retire peacefully sometimes. In fact, resignation is a more common exit for long-serving PMs than election defeat. John Diefenbaker lost the top job in an election 50 years ago. His successors have mostly avoided his fate. Lester Pearson retired in 1968, to be succeeded by Pierre Trudeau. Trudeau did manage to lose the 1979 election, but he was back nine months later and served until he retired in 1984. Brian Mulroney retired in 1993 rather than face the voters again after the Meech and Charlottetown constitutional-reform debacles. Jean Chrétien retired after it became clear he would not survive an internal Liberal party confrontation with his rival, Paul Martin. Normally, one way or another, a leader does the math and decides to choose the moment of his own exit.

Harper must be weighing his chances of winning another election. Throughout 2013, according to the polling website Three Hundred Eight, the Conservatives held an average standing in the polls just under 30 per cent. That’s markedly lower than the governing party’s average through 2012. It’s seven points lower than their share of the vote in 2006, when Harper barely scraped into power. It’s roughly the share of the popular-vote the Conservatives won in 2004, when they lost to Martin’s Liberals.

If the trend he set in 2013 continued, Harper would be on track for a 2015 election defeat. These days in question period he looks gloomy and dejected. In more congenial settings—the Conservative convention in Calgary in November, the Negev dinner in Toronto where his supporters raised $5.7 million for an Israeli charity—he normally caps the evening with his band, playing songs by the Beatles or Randy Bachman. These are festive moments. But a guy who imitates Paul Shaffer to fill out his evenings doesn’t give the impression of single-minded focus on his job.

Still, Harper remains in better shape politically than many of his predecessors at midterm. At 29-ish in the polls, he has hung onto most of a loyal and forgiving Conservative base that puts a decent floor under his support. In previous election years he was always able to build support during the last several weeks before a vote, finishing higher than he began. And he has solid accomplishments he can sell on the campaign trail in 2015. The Ottawa crowd has grown tired of his GST cuts and $100 monthly cheques for parents of children under six, but they remain popular with voters.

What’s more, Harper should be able to offer new electoral baubles by 2015. Jean-Denis Fréchette, the parliamentary budget officer, reported in early December that the government is headed toward a 2015 surplus of $4.6 billion. That would permit billions of dollars in assorted tax cuts. Voters would face a stark choice: cheaper government under Harper’s experienced leadership, or more activist government under a rookie, whether the Liberal Justin Trudeau or the New Democrat Thomas Mulcair.

To be competitive in a 2015 election, however, Harper needs to improve his standing over the course of 2014. It’s not clear how he’ll do that. The most common techniques for getting voters to take a second look at a government are well known, and Harper tried every one of them in 2013. He shuffled his cabinet. He prorogued Parliament and came back with an unusually long and detailed Speech from the Throne. He delivered a rousing speech at a party convention. He concluded a historic trade deal with the European Union. He attended big funerals in both partisan mode (scrumming after Margaret Thatcher’s funeral to denounce Justin Trudeau’s remarks on the Boston terror bombings) and non-partisan (inviting Brian Mulroney, Kim Campbell and Jean Chrétien onto his plane to attend Nelson Mandela’s memorial service). He held two Manitoba Conservative seats against strong Liberal by-election challenges. He ran radio ads against Justin Trudeau for almost a year.

And still he can’t knock the Liberals off the top of the polls, and still he can’t elude Thomas Mulcair’s daily interrogations on the Senate mess in the Commons. It would be good to shut the Senate controversy down, but that is likelier headed to a court trial than to oblivion, and court trials tend to last. It would be good to be able to reform the Senate, but it’s up to the Supreme Court to decide how that can be done; the justices take their time delivering their opinions; and most of the arguments they heard in November urged them to require the approval of most provincial legislatures for any reform. So those two paths to relief seem blocked for now.

A year ago, guessing how 2013 would play out for Harper, I noted that it was his second full year as a majority Prime Minister. “Whatever kind of Prime Minister he ever wanted to be,” I wrote, “this will be the kind of year he gets to be that Prime Minister.” But of course, governments alone don’t decide the course of history. History gets a say in the course of governments. In 2014, Harper has one more full year to turn his luck around. He cannot have expected he’d need it.