A reminder: When you take a meeting with the abyss, the abyss takes a meeting with you

Paul Wells on how Harper plays the game

Let’s see, let’s see…if only there were a book somewhere that gave us insight into the strategy Stephen Harper adopts when he meets other party leaders. Oh wait — here’s one now:

The two leaders met on April 9, 2002. Each man played to type. Clark suggested a process. Harper suggested a solution. Clark lost. In the course of that ninety minutes in a Parliament Hill meeting room, his political career suffered its final blow.

Clark suggested that the two parties set up committees that would meet for four months to discuss possible kinds of co-operation: working together in the Commons, joint policy development, some kind of electoral method to make sure the two parties didn’t split the right-of-centre vote at the next election. What outcome did he expect from all this? To Clark it was an alien question. A well-designed process, by its nature, reaches proper outcomes. In the meantime everyone could trust-build. Clark was big on trust-building. And just in case trust was too slow to build, each would maintain “the option for both of us to continue to build our political parties.” So Clark was offering a long process of unknowable outcome whose central eature was a lack of commitment on either partner’s part.

Harper’s counter-porposal was elegant. And a little vicious. He proposed that the two parties begin sitting together as a combined caucus immediately — as in, within the next couple of days. As for the forthcoming election, they should agree then and there not to run candidates against each other in any riding, then work backward from that goal to find a worthwhile mechanism. Clark was appalled…. “I did not, naturally, find the suggestion… to be a serious proposal,” he told reporters afterward.

What is the point of this story? What information pertains? A few things, methinks:

  • Stephen Harper views a meeting as either a solution or as a waste of his time. He is almost always sure it will be the latter. But he will test whether it is the former. What he will not abide is a meeting that is merely a prelude to more meetings. This meeting with Michael Ignatieff is in the context of a confidence crisis that could cost Harper his job. It’s the second confidence crisis since the election, only eight months ago. You might say that’s Harper’s fault. You might have a point. Harper won’t agree. And he’ll wonder why he should make any concessions today, to survive this confidence crisis, if he’ll just have to go through another one in September and December and March.
  • He assumes the other guy is bluffing and he will seek to call the bluff. That’s what he did with Joe Clark in 2002, and it’s what he did with Stéphane Dion and the other opposition leaders last August. What do you want from me? Tell me, and accept what I want from you. If you don’t have a realistic demand, and if you’re not willing to accept a realistic demand — “realistic” always defined by Harper’s criteria — the meeting is over.

So how would this guy, with this proven record of highly strategic approaches to high-stakes meetings with other leaders, handle his meeting with Ignatieff? I’m only guessing here. I haven’t asked Harper’s entourage. But to me it’s pretty clear.

  • He will ask for the Liberals to refrain from voting no-confidence for a set period of considerable length, say a year, or the next two annual budgets.
  • In return, he will agree to meet any specific reporting requirements Michael Ignatieff wants to put forward.

Note that the second requirement is almost as hard on Ignatieff as the first. As was painfully clear yesterday, Ignatieff doesn’t have specific reporting requirements. He’s just looking for an excuse not to have an election. He’s hoping Harper will throw him a bone. But that’s not how Harper has ever played these things. Harper wants to trade.