Can the Prime Minister be prime-ministerial?

Consider two statements made a day apart by Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

In the House on Wednesday, he characterized Liberal Leader Stéphane Dion’s decision to form a coalition with the NDP, supported by the Bloc Québécois, in these words: “This not a plan to improve the economy. It is a plan to destroy this country, which is why he should withdraw his proposal.”

Outside Rideau Hall on Thursday, having secured his government seven weeks’ reprieve when the Governor General accepted his request to suspend Parliament, Harper described the task at hand: “Today’s decision will give us an opportunity, I’m talking about all the parties, to focus on the economy and work together.”

How do you get from accusing your main adversary of setting out to “destroy this country” to “working together”?

Politicians say harsh things about their opponents all the time. Those of us who take delight in Parliament tend to kind of like it, sort of the way hockey fans enjoy watching the hits.

But just as a cross-check from behind into the boards never looks anything but ugly, hearing a prime minister accuse a devoted federalist of setting out to “destroy the country” takes the fun out of it. You wince. You think, this game isn’t what it used to be.

Harper’s willingness to talk trash is more than a side issue in the current situation. His own future depends largely on how prime-ministerial he sounds between now and when the House sits again on Jan. 26.

“The public is very frustrated with the situation in Parliament, and we are responsible for that,” he said outside Rideau Hall in the falling snow. “We are all responsible for that.”

If he meant all parliamentarians, he’s wrong. I know MPs in all parties who would never have accused their rivals of plotting Canada’s destruction. And many would never have attempted the partisan point-scoring Harper tried to sneak into last week’s economic update, which started this whole mess.

Yet he is more than capable of building support behind what he sets out to accomplish. (He did it to create the party he now leads.) Having pretty much destroyed any chance of restoring a decent working relationship with the other parties on Parliament Hill, he must seek allies elsewhere now, perhaps mainly in provincial governments.

His cabinet ministers have been instructed to work hard at strengthening ties with their provincial counterpoints. And of course Harper has called a key meeting with the premiers on the economy for Jan. 16.

It will be with the premiers that he must show off his conciliatory, team-player, nation-builder side—his best hope for looking like a prime minister who doesn’t deserve to be defeated later that month. The good news for Tories is that the other Harper, the guy who sounds off in QP, isn’t likely to be much on display as long as the House is prorogued.

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