Conservative caucus chaos: The things you miss when you’re wandering the streets of London …

So there I was, wide awake at 5am and poised to bang out a few paragraphs of utterly baffled musings on the latest twists and turns in the Mulroney/Harper saga — which, of course, held off until ITQ was safely out of the country before starting to unfold in earnest, and it’s just my luck that I’d be out of the country for the first major spat to leak outside the normally not just closed but soundproofed and padlocked doors of the Conservative caucus in ages. But I digress.

Anyway, before posting my theory — which my journalistic conscience obliges me to disclose wasn’t so much a “theory” as a series of sentences ending in question marks — I pulled up National Newswatch for my usual nutritious news breakfast, only to discover that L. Ian MacDonald seems to have it all figured out, at least as far as the impetus behind the initial shaggy dog story about the former PM’s membership status.

He’s convinced that the whole thing was, at least at first, a publicity stunt to kick off the book tour for Blue Thunder, Bob Plamandon’s latest chronicling of the Conservative Party – and what’s more, he thinks it’s going to work like a charm, at least as far as boosting book sales.

Which, on first read, seems to make considerably more sense than most of the rampant speculation that has been hurtling hither and yon through the Hill berryvine over the last few days. Alas, a quick glance at the timeline demonstrates that it doesn’t quite synch up with how the original story on Mulroney’s membership status came out.

According to Canadian Press, it was “senior Conservatives [that]contacted select reporters … to tell them Mulroney had effectively torn up his party card”.

That was last Tuesday – March 31, and the ensuing explosion at caucus would have taken place the following day.

Interestingly, that source — who, frustratingly, remains unnamed — reportedly told reporters to call PMO for additional information — which would have itself been a deeply unusual move, given the ostensibly strict delineation between party business and government business when it comes to fielding media requests, and which also suggests that Langevin was aware of the latest attempt by the party to distance itself from the former PM.

Taking into account the short turnaround between the story hitting the wire and that meeting, it doesn’t seem like much of a stretch to assume that someone was working the former PC phone tree that night – not Mulroney himself, most likely, or even necessarily someone acting on his behalf or even with his interests at heart (although it bears remembering that he does have an impressive PR team on standby), but someone who — at least from PMO’s perspective — was almost certainly Not One Of Them.

Given their mania for micromanagement of even the most mundane message tracks, and the remarkable success they had in doing so for most of the PM’s first term, PMO’s response was understandable, if perhaps ultimately futile: panic for a few days, hope it all blows over, and when it shows no signs of doing so, bang out an approved set of talking points and send it out over the weekend, in hopes of shutting down the unauthorized version of events once and for all.

Unfortunately, by failing to anticipate the possibility of a backlash after the almost certainly PMO-approved seeding by the party of a one-off leak on Mulroney’s membership, they managed to lose control of the bigger story: the rift between the current PM and the small but stubborn band of Mulroney loyalists within the caucus.

Remember that the original PMO dictat on Mulroney went out over a year ago, when the idea of a full public inquiry was just a twinkle in the eye of David Johnson and the gang at the Ethics committee, so it’s not as though this rift sprung, fully-formed, from Lee Richardson’s forehead during last week’s caucus.  But it took so long to get underway — the Oliphant inquiry, that is, not Lee Richardson’s forehead — that it really wouldn’t have been all that unusual for the no-contact edict to become one more honoured in the breach than the observance, at least amongst those who still bleed that ever so slightly distinguishable shade of Progressive Conservative blue.

After all, in the twelve months or so since the Oliphant inquiry was officially announced, we’ve had a spring session of utter parliamentary dysfunction, an election, the global economic meltdown, a constitutional crisis and a new Liberal leader. L’Affair Mulroney/Schreiber seemed to fall off the radar entirely, which is why last week’s public hearings seemed to come — well, not quite out of nowhere, but from a corner of somewhere that had, up until then, been assumed to be, for the most part, safely over and done with.

But that’s the thing about public inquiries — as soon as one has been wished into being by a prime minister looking for a way to play for time while appearing to be ready and willing to dive into the heart of a simmering scandal, it takes on a life of its own. Master of its own destiny, it rolls along – usually in semi-obscurity at first, as the rules of the game are laid out, and then straight into the spotlight, a methodical yet irresistible force that will plow right over any government foolhardy enough to try to stop it once it gets going.

Even if the PM has had second thoughts over whether calling the inquiry was the right move, he has no choice now but to stand back and let it run its course, and count on the fact that any fresh scandal that emerges will leave his government – and, if he’s feeling magnanimous, the party he currently leads – relatively unscathed.

By trying to run roughshod over Mulroney’s supporters in caucus, PMO has managed to achieve what the Liberals* tried repeatedly, and unsuccessfully to do during those months of Ethics committee hearings: drag Stephen Harper and his government right smack into the middle of the Mulroney/Schreiber circus. If they’re lucky, they’ve learned their lessson. If we – by which, of course, I mean we-the-media, who are pinching ourselves in disbelieving glee at this outburst of caucus infighting – are lucky, they’re just trying to come up with Plan B. ITQ’s prediction: Bring on — and let Oliphant sort it out.

*None of this, of course, explains why the Liberal leader has decided to become a standard-bearer for Team Mulroney; it’s one thing not to pile on, but really, is it wise to publicly side with the former PM before Justice Oliphant — and the Canadian people — have had the chance to hear from all sides of the controversy? Unless this has something to do with winning over disaffected former Conservatives in the election, but really — isn’t there a less potentially ultimately embarrassing way to do that?  Has nobody at OLO passed along a printout of Colleague Coyne’s scepticum opus?

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