Stephen Harper has no reason to quit while he's ahead

Colby Cosh on the rumours out of Ottawa

Stan Behal/QMI Agency/Zuma/Key Stone Press

They’ll be right eventually. Even as 2013 ended in a sighing consensus that Stephen Harper’s resignation is probably not imminent after all, a few political millenarians continued to insist—in the face of increasingly flat personal denials—that the Prime Minister is sick of the big job and ready to repair to a little house with a white picket fence. The latest example comes from Charlie Smith of the Georgia Straight, who observes that Harper has a past as a “quitter.” A quarter-century ago, you see, he quit Progressive Conservative staff work to become an opposition MP, then quit that job to head a think tank, then quit again to become a party leader.

In case it needs pointing out, the obvious problem with this interpretation is that Harper “quit” worse jobs for better ones pretty much every time. This sort of thing is more typically characterized as ambition than cowardice. But that’s the upside-down analysis Stephen Harper’s enigmatic character invites. More serious commentators spent 2013 playing similar games, on no better evidence. Harper was supposed to retire in the spring, then the summer, then for sure in the fall; based on my understanding of Last Days cults, I expect someone to claim any minute now that Harper actually has already retired in some nuanced, invisible way.

Two forms of wishful thinking are at work here, and are mutually interacting: the cravings of Harper’s enemies, and the interest of reporters in good copy. It is easy to believe that Harper has become a problem for the Conservative party if you spend time around people who see him as an insurmountably incurious, science-smashing, arts-ravaging brute who will not stop until he has strangled the planet for the last of its precious black lifeblood. But Conservative workers and contributors have self-evidently not yet lost faith.

A few of them are growing frustrated with the categorical abortion truce he has imposed on his caucus, and see hope in Jason Kenney, whose activity in recruiting ethnic minorities to the party is attracting increasing attention. Kenney might already be the most influential Canadian politician of the past 20 years, not excluding Harper. Canadian Taxpayers Federation jobs are still seen as attractive largely because Kenney, by some miracle, actually managed to influence policy in Alberta when he had one. His tending of minorities seems superhuman. I am convinced I could start a fake religion tomorrow and within six months Kenney would be sending us excruciatingly correct salutations on precisely the right made-up feast days. “The Conservative party wishes His Excellency the Pooh-Bah a happy and abundant Saskatoon-Picking Day.”

But there are many problems with the sudden agreement on an imminent Kenney succession, starting with the fact that accumulating authority with small ethnic and religious groups is?.?.?.?well, his job. Perhaps it gives him potential leverage in a leadership race, but it is indistinguishable from merely having done excellent work on behalf of Stephen Harper. Meanwhile, what of the abortion truce in the hands of a committed pro-life leader—someone who has, unlike Harper, actually been active in the pro-life movement? We are in an awkward situation here, speculating wildly about future leadership without having a licence to ask any potential contenders questions. As a result, the questions seem to be treated as though they are not relevant.

There are other questions, starting with, “Would the party want another leader from Alberta?” This one applies to some other perceived successors, as does “How’s his French? (No, really, how is it?)” For others, “Would you really want to see this person try to win a televised election debate?” seems like a good starting point. Jim Flaherty has shown signs of interest in the big job, but faces major health questions as a potential PM. Jim Prentice has a personal cult but would have to walk away from the income of Croesus to become a candidate.

There is definitely one man who has met all the qualifications, passed all the hurdles, and had his closet scanned for skeletons: It’s the guy who has the job now. The question is only whether he wants to keep it. So how would we really know if he didn’t? Harper doesn’t really have a lot of old foxhole-sharing cronies we can wheedle for clues. His leadership style involves surrounding himself with ultra-loyal young janissaries who would rather die than tell tales over Glenfiddich at Hy’s. His main source of enjoyment in life sometimes seems to be abusing and needling the press, a tactic that will remain a perennial winner for the foreseeable future. Why would a Conservative Prime Minister quit when it’s so easy to run against the media?

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