A Conservative mole?

Paul Wells on a breach of the Harper brain trust

Sean Kilpatrick/CP

Sean Kilpatrick/CP

Conservative Party president John Walsh likes to fret that “Liberal attacks and the media” will cause his party some discomfort in the run-up to the next election. But the wretches in the Gallery may not be his only problem.

This page features a photo of fewer than 20 people, and a list of only slightly more than 20 names, and they are the sanctum sanctorum of Conservative organizational power in this land: The Conservative Party  National Council. Rock-ribbed Harperholics all. “A lifelong Conservative,” says one member’s bio. “A long history with Conservative parties,” says another. “A staunch defender of conservative ideas and values,” says a third.

Over the weekend, this group met to consider a pile of documents pertaining to Stephen Harper’s plan to become the first man to win four consecutive elections since Wilfrid Laurier. It was important business for a party that is serious about winning. And on Sunday and Monday the Conservative Party’s business started leaking like a firehose.

There is always the suspicion that the Conservatives — indeed, any party — will leak against themselves, to get people talking about their “plans” and thus to spread their message. That’s sure what it looked like when the Toronto Star brought news, this morning, of a plan to cut capers and hand out whoopie cushions at this month’s Liberal convention in Montreal. (The Star treated this as an extension of a “Conservative … history” of playing pranks at Liberal conventions, but I fondly remember Liberal hijinx at an Ontario Conservative leadership convention a decade ago (hair gel to make fun of Ernie Eves!), and NDP goofs at last autumn’s Conservative convention in Calgary (Senator pension hockey cards!). These games are ubiquitous, and if they do little to hurt the target party they do wonders, perhaps surprisingly, for the perpetrators’ morale.)

But when, a little later, the Star published details of a 70-slide election-readiness PowerPoint deck that our friend Dimitri Soudas presented at the weekend meeting, my smug certainty that the paper was getting played started to waver. The Conservatives have leaked fake memos before. Doug Finley, rest his soul, was fond of the tactic. But you do that to underline your messaging with some free publicity. “‘Dear Fellow Conservatives, I am starting to worry the Liberals are stinkers.’ Put that in a brown envelope and send it to the gallery.” You don’t do that with every detail of your election planning. When I was preparing my recent book, Finley and another senior strategist told me they used to prepare fresh election-readiness plans every several weeks during the minority days. I asked for a copy of one of those seven-year-old memos, for posterity’s sake. I got nowhere. They’re trade secrets. Today one of them is on the Star’s website.

All this is even more true when it comes to the day’s third story, which details the terms of Guy Giorno’s new gig as the Conservatives’ legal advisor. He’s a good choice. He knows the legal thickets surrounding partisan activity well, and understands the difference between what the party might hope and what the rules actually say. But his firm is also advising Nigel Wright, and the leaked memo lays out the details of that thorny relationship, and none of it can be pleasant for Conservatives to read in the newspaper they like least.

So it looks like the Conservatives have an energetic leaker on their hands.

It’s funny that the Liberal convention disruption memo describes the (perennial) Conservative desire to foment “disunity” among Liberals. Encouraging the Liberals in their propensity toward infighting, backstabbing and mutual recrimination is a central Conservative tactical goal. It’s why the Stéphane Dion “this is not fair” TV ads featured Michael Ignatieff, in footage from a Toronto debate, as the then-Liberal leader’s main antagonist. The Harper brain trust wanted Liberals to question one another’s motives.

Tonight the Harper brain trust is wondering about the motives of their own party’s central governing apparatus. That’s a problem for them.

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