Is good ol' Stevie ready to wave goodbye to us? Maybe. Photo via.
You don't have to read the news all too often to know Stephen Harper did not have a very positive 2013. In the wake of the ongoing Senate Scandal, pundits from all corners of the Canadian media have been taking breaks from their discussions about Mike Duffy, Nigel Wright, and the mysterious $90,000 cheque in order to ask a bigger question: will Stephen Harper step down as Prime Minister? The latest critic to raise this possibility was John Ivison at the National Post, who suggested Harper's resignation would follow his state visit to Israel (where he just caused further controversy by suggesting that criticism of the state of Israel is "the new face of anti-Semitism").
Since his first term in office, Harper's strategy in times of crisis has been to avoid talking about problems at all costs. If Harper refuses to talk about any potential controversies, then there's no embarrassing soundbites to run every thirty minutes on cable news and no juicy words for editors to plug between quotation marks in their headlines. If the perceived economic effect of a problem is effectively nil, then people won't care. Are the Conservatives muzzling scientists? Yes, but you've probably never heard Harper speak about it. Did Statistics Canada chief Munir Sheikh resign to protest the Conservatives' cancellation of the long form census? Yes, but Stephen Harper didn't address that. Instead, he sent Tony Clement to the media with a bunch of inoffensive talking points that didn't make any sense. Even in leader's debates, when Harper is asked directly to his face about omnibus crime bills and cuts to foreign aid, he repeats a few talking points in his most reasonable tone of voice before changing the subject back to the economy.
When stray limbs of the Conservative body create unwanted headlines, Harper's response, always, is to cut them off. Helena Guergis, the former Minister of State for the Status of Women, was accused of ethically questionable behaviour (including having a coke party with sex workers, and using her influence in the government to help her husband's business), so Harper expelled her from the caucus immediately and wouldn't allow her back, even after she was cleared of criminal wrongdoing by an RCMP probe. When Conservative backbencher Stephen Woodworth introduced a private member's bill that would have reopened the legal debate on abortion, Harper diffused the situation by publicly denouncing the bill and ensuring its defeat in Parliament.
Stephen Harper's entirely predictable attempts to mitigate the Senate Scandal in its early stages are the same reasons that he'll still be facing questions about his conduct in the next Parliament. Redirecting all questions about the scandal to parliamentary secretary Paul Calandra probably seemed like a good idea at first, seeing as it would keep the TV cameras off of himself, but Thomas Mulcair wouldn't let the scandal (or Harper's unwillingness to talk about it) go away. Calandra's increasingly twisted deflections have
turned into an online parody campaign and there's more scrutiny than ever on Harper to answer his critics. It doesn't help that Harper has contradicted himself on the few questions that he has addressed. The scandal is not staying in the news because of the alleged inappropriate expense claims by former Senators Mike Duffy, Pamela Wallin and Patrick Brazeau; it's being kept in the news because Harper may have lied to Parliament in his attempts to keep the conversation on other topics.
Harper's strategy of cutting off any potential controversy at the root has been incredibly effective over the past eight years, but it's also been ruthless. The Senate Scandal is especially bad for Harper because the most incriminating aspects of the scandal occurred when the Prime Minister's Office tried to maneuver its way out of a smaller scandal by brokering deals and keeping them secret. Of course, the Conservative Party's shitty poll numbers are a part of Harper's problem, but the real problem comes from within his own party. Canada's right wing spent the 90s in a deep political wilderness because they couldn't figure out how to get along with each other. Harper managed to bring them together, but this collection of former Reformers and former Progressive Conservatives might not see the logic in following a leader who keeps his caucus under a thumb if that same leader can't also guarantee an electoral victory in 2014.
Conservative backbencher Michael Chong introduced a reform bill last parliamentary session that would transfer some powers from the Prime Minister to the caucuses (and give caucuses the power to vote out their leader). In Alberta, the red and blue wings of the party (breaking down roughly along Progressive Conservative and Wildrose Party lines) are battling over the party nomination of Nelson Mandela-hating MP Rob Anders in Calgary West. In the cabinet, Minister Jason Kenney isn't afraid to break from the party silence and call for Rob Ford to step down (almost causing a fight between him and Finance Minister Jim Flaherty). There's also the backbenchers who want to recriminalize abortion despite Harper's assurances that the issue won't be discussed while he's in office. In short, the Conservative Party is splintering, and Harper's inability to keep a lid on it could be fatal to his position as leader. It's clear that Harper is becoming less and less popular among his own party, who followed him as long as he could win elections but may not be there if he proves to be a liability instead of an asset in 2014.
It's certainly possible that Harper can ride out his current lull in popularity, but the longer the Conservatives lag behind Trudeau's Liberals in the polls, the more likely that Harper will resign and let someone else try to rebuild the party's support. Since its birth from the ashes of the Canadian Alliance in 2003, the Conservative Party has been Stephen Harper's Conservative Party. Also under Harper, the party has transformed from a reform-based party that wanted to cut spending into a party that has very little interest in reform and spends the same amount as its Liberal predecessors. It remains to be seen whether or not any of Harper's likely successors can maintain control over such an unwieldy beast; but if things keep going badly for our Prime Minister, we might just find out sooner rather than later.