Here’s how bad things have got for Stephen Harper: people are taking Garth Turner seriously. The former journalist, former Conservative, former MP’s gossipy tell-all of his time in Parliament, Sheeple: Caucus Confidential in Stephen Harper’s Ottawa, with its lengthy, verbatim quotes from private conversations with the Prime Minister, has attracted the sort of respectful attention usually reserved for more substantial works. And far from being dismissed as the sour grapes of a perpetual grandstander, his tales of ill use at the hands of Harper and his aides have raised only rueful clucks of “sounds about right.” Among Conservatives, I mean.
It’s been like that lately for the Prime Minister. His party is rapidly losing what meagre altitude it had gained in the polls; tensions are high between its Progressive Conservative and Reform factions; and the bizarre, self-inflicted crisis over Brian Mulroney’s party membership was resolved only after some small but striking displays of defiance by caucus members. Little wonder that speculation among the political class has grown: that Harper’s grip on power is slipping, that he might leave or even be forced out before the next election.
It’s not going to happen. Whatever Harper’s mistakes of judgment, however grating voters may find his personality, there is no obvious alternative to him as party leader, nor is one likely to emerge in time for an election. Bloodied as he may be, diminished as his reputation surely is, he’s not going anywhere: not of his own volition, and certainly not against it.
That isn’t to understate the Conservatives’ present distress. From a six-point lead in the polls, on average, in January, the Conservatives have drifted to a two-point deficit in April. Support is falling everywhere: they are in a three-way dogfight in B.C., have fallen eight points back of the Liberals in Ontario, and in Quebec—oh God. At 35 per cent in a Léger poll last September, the Tories are now hovering around 10 per cent. In some polls, they’re trailing the NDP.
The odd thing is that the public gives the government pretty good marks, all in all, for its handling of the economy—remarkably so, at a time of rising unemployment, falling output and exploding deficits. Six in 10 respondents to a recent Ipsos Reid poll rated the government’s economic performance at C or better. An Ekos poll finds nearly half of Canadians believe the country “is on the right track,” a question that is usually strongly correlated with support for the party in power.
Yet just as many respondents said the government was “on the wrong track.” Those polled described the Harper government as cautious, rather than visionary, though their own preferences leaned distinctly to the latter side. It’s hard not to interpret these results as a referendum on leadership. It is surely no coincidence that the Liberal surge began more or less the day Michael Ignatieff replaced Stéphane Dion as leader. More tellingly, the Tory slide has been accompanied by a significant increase in public disenchantment with Harper: Ekos finds 54 per cent disapproval of Harper’s performance, nearly twice as high as for Ignatieff.
On the other hand, polls still show Harper leading or level with Ignatieff on a range of traditional leadership questions: “best prime minister,” “strong and decisive,” and so forth. Understandably so. No one doubts Harper’s abilities. He is easily the most impressive political leader of his generation. It’s his style, the way he does politics—the chippiness, the intolerance of dissent, the relentless partisanship—that puts people off. Once, people would have described him as dull but decent; a bit of an ideologue, but a straight arrow; principled, consistent, ethical to a fault. Now, the word that more usually comes to mind is Machiavellian.
Yet even his reputation as a strategist has been tarnished. The leader who was once known for playing “the long game,” preferring to build his political capital rather than take short-term political profits, has succumbed, under the pressures of minority government, to the temptations of tactical advantage. For a time, against Dion’s uncertain opposition, it seemed to work. The Tories ran the table with the Liberal leader, emerging triumphant in a series of parliamentary tests of will that were the basis of Harper’s alpha-male reputation as a “strong leader.”
But since the fall the results have been little short of catastrophic. The calling of an early election, in defiance of his own fixed-term legislation; the decision to campaign without a platform, even in the shadow of an oncoming economic crisis; his own erratic performance as a campaigner, notably with regard to Quebec; the fall economic statement, with its ill-judged lunge for the opposition’s vitals; the desperate, borderline unconstitutional lengths to which he went to stave off a vote of no-confidence; the sudden lurch into deficit in January’s budget, the enthusiastic embrace of corporate subsidies, the massive increase in spending—all this has bewildered the government’s supporters, even as it has alienated swing voters.
But. With all his faults, who is there to replace him? Leave aside the matter of how he could be replaced. What alternative is there for the Conservatives? Who could command the same degree of confidence? Answer: no one. It is perhaps the strongest indictment of Harper’s leadership that he has recruited so few people of stature to serve with him, and afforded those he has so little opportunity to shine. But the fact remains: he is by far the Conservatives’ strongest horse. By far. Peter MacKay? Don’t make me laugh. Jim Prentice? Don’t make me weep. Jim Flaherty has performed capably enough as finance minister, but has probably risen as far as his abilities will take him. Jason Kenney, talented as he is, is not nearly ready. After that it’s a long way down.
Besides, the Tories aren’t in all that bad shape. After a rough few weeks, in the middle of a recession, with Ignatieff in mid-honeymoon, they trail by only a couple of points. And they have not yet begun to fight. Ignatieff is vulnerable on any number of fronts—his latest book, with its fantastic, and fantastically expensive, musings about high-speed rail and four-laning the Trans-Canada and a “national energy strategy,” has added several more—and the Tories still enjoy a wide advantage in fundraising and organization, notwithstanding recent Liberal gains.
Certainly there is no need for the Tories to panic. However excited the media may become at every squiggle in the polls, and whatever brave noises the Liberals might be making about defeating the government, there isn’t going to be an election any time soon: certainly not this spring, probably not next fall, quite possibly not until 2012. It isn’t that the Liberals are bluffing, though they probably are—they can’t possibly afford another election, so soon after the last. It is simply that the Liberals, on their own, aren’t in a position to provoke one. To defeat the government, given current numbers in Parliament, requires all three opposition parties to vote together. Which means all three have to see it to their advantage to bring the government down, at the same time. Which almost never happens. The same surge in the polls that has the Liberals talking election has the NDP deathly afraid of one. Short of a total collapse in their own vote, the Conservatives can expect to be maintained in power by the divisions among their rivals, almost indefinitely.
And the one thing that would be most likely to precipitate such a collapse would be if Harper were to leave. If his leadership seems to set a ceiling on Tory support, his departure could very well knock out the floor. Not only is there no obvious heir apparent, but it is far from clear whether anyone else could hold the party together. More than anyone else, Stephen Harper built this party. Even today, he dominates it. It is hard to think of anyone else in the party who could preserve the still- fragile truce between the two factions, if only by sheer intimidation. No leader is indispensable, but he comes as close to it as any.
Harper has plenty of time to turn things around. If he can learn to temper his partisan instincts, to put aside the gamesmanship, to play instead to his strengths—his command of policy, his powers of persuasion, his sturdy self-assurance—and above all, to return to a steady, consistent approach to governing, there is no reason he cannot win the voters’ confidence, if not their affection. He will never be loved. But leaders do not have to be loved to be successful.
And if not? If Harper fails to reach out, to grow, to change? Then that would leave the Conservatives in a predicament: can’t win with him. Can’t win without him.