Harper’s next big chance

With Ignatieff cowed, the PM’s brain trust plans the next attack

Harper’s next big chanceIn the last week of May, Prime Minister Stephen Harper met with his top political advisers and the Conservative party campaign team. He “put all the troops on high election alert,” an adviser said last week, “and told them to get ready for the campaign.”

Nothing particular in the outside world had triggered this decision, no action by Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff or the other opposition leaders, no big news story. And it was hardly the first time Harper had ordered his party put on campaign footing without being sure a campaign was actually coming. The Conservative leader would always rather be safe than sorry. What had spurred this latest escalation in the threat level, the Harper adviser says, was the Conservatives’ own calculation of the Liberals’ best interests.

Every now and then, Harper’s advisers—a loose-knit group that includes campaign chairman Doug Finley, chief of staff Guy Giorno, communications director Kory Ten­eycke and a few others—try to figure out what they would advise the Liberal leader if that were their job. This time they came up with four strong arguments that, they thought, should persuade Michael Ignatieff to force an election before Parliament’s summer break if he could.

“First, he’s only going to get a second chance”—that is, he would only be permitted by Liberals to stay on and lead them into a second election after losing the first—“if he takes the first chance pretty early. And we think he expects to need a second chance,” the adviser said.

“Second, the ads were starting to bite.” These were the “Just Visiting” ads the Conservatives were running on television and the Internet, which argue that Ignatieff has no interest in Canada unless he can run it. Here the Harper adviser’s argument sounds self-serving, because most polling organizations can find no evidence the ads have been a drag on voter support for the Liberals. “But the target isn’t the horse-race numbers,” the adviser countered. “The target is Ignatieff’s personal numbers. And they’re starting to erode.”

Third, “there was starting to be evidence that the economy hit bottom in March. And they would rather go against us in a bad economy than a good one.

“Fourth, he’s 61 f—ing years old. He doesn’t have a lot of time.”

So when Ignatieff went into the National Press Theatre on Monday, June 15, the Conservatives thought he was going to announce he had lost confidence in their government and would vote accordingly at the next opportunity. Instead they heard . . . well, they weren’t sure what to make of it.

“The Liberal party is not seeking an election,” Ignatieff said. “We want Parliament to work. We want to replace confrontation with co-operation. But we need the Prime Minister to provide the accountability that Canadians expect.”

Instead of an electoral confrontation, Harper found himself in a day of secretive negotiations with Ignatieff. Instead of a fight, the two men found themselves announcing a deal. They were striking a blue-ribbon panel to consider changes to the Employment Insurance system. It will report at the end of September. The Harper government will survive at least that long. The mood among Conservatives this week was just short of jubilant: after worrying for months that their hapless Liberal opponents might finally have them on the ropes, they have caught a break. Ignatieff made the first bold move of his charmed tenure as Liberal leader—and flinched.

Obviously this is the analysis of Conservatives, who are predisposed to see their man Harper as the winner in any confrontation. But it matches the early findings of pollsters and the private concerns of Liberals.

A weekly large-sample Ekos poll of voter preference showed that the Liberals’ lead over the Conservatives shrank from 4.7 points before the EI deal to 1.3 points afterward. On the single day that Harper and Ignatieff were meeting behind closed doors, Ekos tracking showed the Liberals taking a fleeting but terrifying nine-point dip.

Ignatieff has the summer to pick up his game. The consensus in Ottawa is that he’ll need it. And Harper has the summer to plan for the next confrontation. For a guy who was on the ropes just two weeks ago that’s a good place to be. Here’s how it all happened.

“He’s had a roller-coaster year,” the Harper adviser said. “But it’s been that way with Stephen since the beginning.”

Ever since Harper returned to electoral politics in 2002, he has moved from crunch to crunch. He won the Canadian Alliance leadership and brokered the merger between his party and the Progressive Conservatives. In 2004 he won that party’s leadership and went straight into electoral battle against Paul Martin’s Liberals, finally winning in January 2006. From there he had two luxurious years of something close to stability while he set about defining his new Conservatism in power.

In the 2008 election he cut Stéphane Dion’s Liberals to their lowest share of the popular vote since Confederation, and their lowest seat total in 24 years. Then, leading a larger caucus against a headless opposition, Harper had Finance Minister Jim Flaherty deliver a November economic update that proposed to eliminate public funding of political parties. The Liberals, New Democrats and Bloc Québécois depend on taxpayer subsidies for a bigger fraction of their war chests than do the Conservatives, whose Reform branch has spent 20 years raising money from large numbers of individual donors. It would have been a devastating move.

But Harper riled the opposition instead of asphyxiating them, and though he survived the three parties’ attempts to build a parliamentary coalition to replace him, Conservatives were left badly rattled by it all.
When the dust settled in January, Ignatieff had replaced Dion in a bloodless coup. The Liberals saved the money and energy they would have spent fighting among themselves. And the Conservatives kept stepping in cow pies. Harper had his communications staff put out word that Brian Mulroney, who faced a public inquiry into his dealings with Karlheinz Schreiber, was estranged from the party. This merely succeeded in infuriating former Progressive Conservatives who were still loyal to Mulroney. Then Natural Resources Minister Lisa Raitt’s assistant mislaid a briefing book and a digital recorder. Reporters divulged the embarrassing contents of both items.

All the while, Ignatieff had Harper on this pesky leash. As his price for supporting the Conservative budget in January, Ignatieff put the Conservatives “on probation.” He demanded they deliver updates on the implementation of the budget in March, June and September. Each time the government would face a confidence test in the Commons. Each time, if it lost there would be an election. Missteps and mini-scandals had the Conservatives reeling. A fresh new Liberal leader held the whip hand. Even the Just Visiting ads weren’t keeping the Liberals from creeping into a lead over the Conservatives.

Harper made the best show he could of what, to him, seemed the inevitable crisis. He released his second “probation” report in an elaborate show in Cambridge, in southern Ontario. The report claimed 80 per cent of stimulus measures were being spent or on the way to being spent—a comically broad measure of success. Now, the Conservatives were sure, Ignatieff would force an election, while seeking to put the blame for it on Harper.

Instead the Liberal leader stalled, clumsily. In an endless, disjointed Montreal scrum, Ignatieff gave non-answers to question after question before telling reporters he would read Harper’s report overnight and get back to them.

That was a Thursday. On Friday, the Liberals put out a news release saying he’d take the weekend before saying anything. On Monday, he had that weird news conference, a mix of bluster and pleading. He didn’t want an election. But if Harper wanted to avoid one, he needed to give Ignatieff more information on four key questions. Ignatieff wanted a more generous EI system; he wanted to know how much of the stimulus money was spent, not promised; he wanted to know how Harper planned to get out of the huge deficits he had dug at the opposition’s demand; and he wanted to know how the government would replace medical isotopes the abandoned Chalk River reactor will no longer produce. Four questions. So he was demanding answers? “I don’t need to have all the answers this week.” Huh?

With that, he headed into question period. Harper almost never attends the daily circus on Monday, but today he did. Much of his staff was in the gallery above, watching. Ignatieff amazed them by neglecting to ask whether Harper would meet his demands. “I don’t know what he wants,” Bloc Leader Gilles Duceppe said to reporters afterward.

Harper held an impromptu news conference to answer the questions he hadn’t had from Ignatieff. He said he had either already answered Ignatieff’s demands or that he couldn’t. Ignatieff gave a string of TV interviews, each markedly less bellicose than the last. It was like watching the air go out of a balloon.

The Conservative and Liberal press offices sent word out: the two leaders would spend Tuesday meeting. On Wednesday they announced a deal. It was a pretty minimal deal. On isotopes: nothing. On climbing out of deficit: nothing. On the precise amount of stimulus spending: nothing. On EI: a two-party committee would report in September. Ignatieff was batting maybe one-half for four. He’d take it. The Liberals would continue to support the government. “Do I look steamrolled?” he asked reporters wanly, looking steamrolled.

Only Harper, Ignatieff and their top advisers, Conservative Guy Giorno and Liberal Ian Davey, were in the room when they met. None of the principals is talking. “I just think Harper got a sense that Ignatieff really didn’t want a campaign,” said a Conservative who talked to Maclean’s and had been briefed on the meetings. “So [he said] ‘Here’s our response; find a way to sell it.’ ”

So a show of strength had become a moment of vagueness for Ignatieff. He has the summer to reorganize, rest and, perhaps most important, think a bit so he can do better in the autumn. But so does Harper. And Harper doesn’t normally waste his summers. He won in 2006 because he changed his team and strategy over the summer of 2005. He used the summer of 2008 to change chiefs of staff. His critics have called his new right-hand man, Guy Giorno, a source of the past half-year’s missteps. Harper’s admirers have an entirely different read.

Two MPs said Giorno, who once held the same job for former Ontario premier Mike Harris, is seen by the Conservative caucus to be more attentive to their concerns than Ian Brodie, the former political science prof Giorno replaced. “Phone calls get returned promptly,” one said. “Problems that keep local members awake at night get resolved.” Brodie was seen to be enforcing discipline on the Conservative caucus and political staff while giving the civil service a free rein. With Giorno, that’s turned around. Partisans have more latitude. It’s the bureaucracy whose wings have been clipped.

But what about the missteps? The fall update and the fight with Mulroney? Not Giorno’s fault, insiders say. “The crimes of Giorno are actually the crimes of Harper,” a cabinet minister said. “Every one of them. Every one.”

The change at Harper’s right hand probably contributed to another major change, the departure of Kevin Lynch as clerk of the Privy Council. Lynch had a direct pipeline to Harper. His memos could go straight to the Prime Minister’s desk, in many cases without Brodie seeing them and appending a political memo first. Giorno ended that practice—simply restoring balance between politics and the bureaucracy, Harper’s side says, but “for Kevin it was a radical change.”

Lynch has retired, to be replaced by former Treasury Board deputy minister Wayne Wouters. Wouters is highly regarded but seen as temperamentally less likely than the firebrand Lynch to challenge the fundamentally political cast of a Giorno-led PMO. “Kevin had to win every day,” said a career civil servant who knows both men well. “Wayne won once, on the day he was appointed clerk.”

Harper will have another chance to consolidate his control over the apparatus of government with three major pending appointments. Wouters must be replaced as the top bureaucrat at the Treasury Board, in charge of spending all that stimulus money. Rob Wright has announced he is retiring as deputy minister of finance. And Len Edwards is telling friends he will soon depart as deputy minister of foreign affairs. Ottawa Kremlinologists will be watching Harper’s choice of replacements for clues about the government’s new direction.

But surely there’ll be an election in September? Conservatives aren’t convinced. If Ignatieff couldn’t come up with a reason to pull the plug in June it’s not clear why that would change. Another confidence vote in September, one said, “is another chance for Iggy to look weak.”

The Conservatives think the controversies that obsess Ottawa are ignored in their ridings—and vice versa. Budget measures like tax-free savings accounts and a home-renovation tax credit are what gets noticed and appreciated at home, they say.

“He’s reaching out and connecting to the people he should be reaching out and connecting with,” the Harper adviser said. “We’re not trying to reach 100 per cent of the people. We’re not even trying to reach 60 per cent.”

Whenever the election does come, Harper has one plan in mind for afterward: the elimination of public funding to political parties. A punishing blow to his opponents. Sure, the idea caused a showdown last autumn, the adviser said. “But in retrospect, we should have stuck to our guns. It was strategically smart. It’s still strategically smart. We’re going to run again on it. And we’re going to do it, if we win the next election. It’s coming.”