Stephen Harper wonders how bad his luck can get in Quebec

A midnight blogpost about what the PM was thinking when he called Mulroney

<p>Prime Minister Stephen Harper stands in the House of Commons during Question Period in Ottawa, Wednesday April 25, 2012. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld</p>

Prime Minister Stephen Harper stands in the House of Commons during Question Period in Ottawa, Wednesday April 25, 2012. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

Stephen Harper doesn’t announce many of his most important meetings. He routinely meets one-on-one with provincial premiers without either party mentioning the encounters to reporters. And from Stephanie Levitz at Canadian Press comes news that he met Brian Mulroney and, separately, Jean Charest last week. Why? Levitz’s sources have a hunch:

A provincial by-election in Quebec last week saw the sovereigntist Parti Quebecois win a riding that’s been held by the Liberals for 46 years.

It suggests the party’s strength is growing as support for the current Liberal government melts from the heat of sustained student protests and a provincial election is expected in the fall.

If another national unity debate springs from a PQ victory, Harper would be in an enfeebled position relative to his predecessors: his Conservative party polls in the low teens in Quebec and there is no effective spokesperson for federalist forces in the governing party.

The sit-down with Mulroney signals how skittish the federal government is about their continued failure to connect with Quebecers.

It’s a good guess. Harper’s tiny Quebec caucus makes as many brave noises as it can, but I know the prime minister is spooked by the prospect (not the guarantee, because of course there is none, but the non-negligible possibility)  of a Parti Québécois government returning to power within 15 weeks.

Various branches of the federal government have quietly been discussing possible responses to a PQ victory. During the recent French election, one of Harper’s main concerns was PQ claims that François Hollande would rekindle a cozy relationship between French Socialists and Quebec separatists. (Polarity on that file has switched a few times over the years. De Gaulle was no Socialist and François Mitterrand, who was, was no fan of the PQ. But Jacques Chirac astonished everyone by becoming a good friend of Jean Chrétien’s, and Nicolas Sarkozy was so tight with the Desmarais clan that the PQ is coming off the chilliest five years it’s ever known in France. So the PQ has been hoping a Hollande victory would bring a thaw.) I’m told Harper was greatly reassured by his first long conversation with Hollande, at Camp David last month. But France’s attitude was always going to be peripheral. Hollande doesn’t get a vote.

The people who do get a vote haven’t been voting Conservative and they personally dislike Jean Charest. Take Charest first. The Charbonneau commission is broadcasting daily reminders of endemic corruption in the construction industry. Charest may yet win an election, but if he doesn’t he’s a deeply unpopular leader whose relationship with voters will have changed entirely since the 1995 referendum.

As for Harper: try this thought experiment. Imagine Albertans taking it into their heads to do something, and Tom Mulcair trying to talk them out of it. That’s a decent proxy for Harper’s clout in Quebec: the NDP share of the popular vote in Alberta last May and the Conservatives’ in Quebec were nearly the same.

So if Pauline Marois became premier and decided to try her luck, she’d face a worn-out Jean Charest with no young Jean Charest to back him up; and a Prime Minister with half the seats and voter appeal that Jean Chrétien had when he nearly lost the 1995 referendum. What’s that leave?

Why, Tom Mulcair. By some measures, the most popular politician in Quebec. A few New Democrats were already crowing Friday evening on Twitter at the prospect of Mulcair emerging as Captain Canada in some new confrontation. And that would indeed be fun. But early on, his stance on the Clarity Act and the NDP’s Sherbrooke Declaration would get noticed by the 64% of 2011 NDP voters who live outside Quebec. I watched Alexa McDonough in 1999: she was all Quebec’s-right-to-decide-its-fate and 50%-plus-one-is-a-sufficient majority until the week Chrétien brought in the Clarity Act, and then the phone started ringing with messages from home. She didn’t have Quebec MPs, so McDonough was able to turn on a dime and vote for Clarity. Mulcair’s hand is different and he would watch his party snap like a twig.

Look, I might as well admit right away that I’m indulging nightmare scenarios. Charest might yet win; François Legault’s centre-right not-really-separatist new party might get lucky in a weird vote split and take power. As for Marois, my impression is that once elected she’d be the paperest paper tiger since Bernie Landry. And it’s not a bad day for Canada when the PQ is in power in Quebec and tearing itself apart over points of doctrine.

But if she wins an election and then gets bold or reckless, Harper won’t have much of a political hand. He will have the Clarity Act, the Constitution and customary international law, all of which break decidedly in favour of a united Canada. But those are all handy guides for steering through a hell of a political mess. Once you need them, you’re already in the mess. No wonder Harper is renewing strategic acquaintances.