OTTAWA - "The Conservatives have easily escaped to fight another day, but what are they fighting for?"

The question, from recently retired Tory minister Monte Solberg, encapsulated the uneasy reaction Wednesday of Canada's fiscal conservatives to Prime Minister Stephen Harper's big-spending, return-to-deficit federal budget.

With $85 billion in projected red ink, new regional-development programs, industry-specific bailouts and a scattershot of loonies for everything from cultural festivals to community newspapers, the profoundly activist 2009-10 budget drew both outrage and deep introspection from Harper's bedrock supporters.

"I spent five years getting Harper into power, so God knows I want him to survive," Tom Flanagan, a political scientist at the University of Calgary, said in an interview Wednesday.

"I perfectly understand the imperatives of political survival and the need to make compromises and to adjust, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. But ... it's got a creepy feel to it."

It's been three years almost to the day since Harper's Conservatives ended more than a decade-long Liberal stranglehold on the levers of federal power.

The Jan. 23 anniversary went by unremarked last week, overshadowed by the government's strategic early release of a shocking deficit projection: $64 billion over two years, the first time federal finances will be in the red since 1996.

An unprecedented slew of advance spending announcements also preceded the actual budget release. That left an across-the-board income-tax cut - a truly conservative measure - as the remaining, wished-for government headline on Budget Tuesday.

It didn't fool proponents of budget austerity.

"If you're a fiscal conservative, this is a very difficult budget to swallow because it is about politics and not economics," Niels Veldhuis, the director of fiscal studies at the right-leaning Fraser Institute, said in an interview.

"This budget actually goes the opposite direction."

Veldhuis said the recession-fighting blueprint released Tuesday by Finance Minister Jim Flaherty reminds him of Paul Martin's 2005 Liberal budget, "which was his attempt to try to satisfy everybody, and eventually it satisfied nobody."

"So I draw similarities between that and this budget - except, of course, for the huge deficit."


"This budget is not a failure of the Conservative party, it is a failure of the conservative movement," said the headline Wednesday on the blog of Stephen Taylor, the informed and faithful standard-bearer of partisan Conservative party politics in this country.

Taylor argued the budget was a necessary act of self-preservation, considering a climate of "ideological survivability" has not yet been established in Canada to sustain a "sincerely conservative budget."

After all, Taylor wrote, "a political party, in practice, is not much more than a marketing machine to sell ideas to an electorate looking to buy them."

Ouch again.

Peter Woolstencroft, a self-described "Robert Taft conservative" political scientist at the University of Waterloo, said the Harper government delivered some conservative direction in its first term in office, although it always over-spent come budget day.

But the latest spending document utterly lacks a conservative road map, he said. "I could not see any over-arching vision or purpose."

Woolstencroft's existential question: "If this is the kind of budget that Conservative government produces ... why bother voting for these people?"

He said he'll be watching party coffers in 2009 to see if the Tory base of monthly donors starts drifting away.

The conservative misgivings have not gone unnoticed by their political opponents, who are delighting in the apparent introspection of their more ideologically committed adversaries.

The budget, Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff suggested Wednesday, "throws the Conservative movement in Canada into a certain form of deep ideological confusion - from which I sincerely hope it never recovers."

Flanagan maintained the Conservatives aren't driving supporters to the Liberals and that Harper has a record of conservative achievement.

"The record of accomplishment is still there," said the former Conservative campaign director.

"But it looks like things are grinding to a halt. Are we just going to enter a period of political pragmatism, when all you do is fight to survive? That's very discouraging.

"We thought that Mr. Harper had the strategic acumen to survive and make some progress toward conservative goals."

Ouch, yet again.

As Solberg, who until last September was a veteran Harper cabinet minister, concluded Wednesday in an editorial for a national media outlet, the big-spending budget buys the Tories some time "to craft a compelling conservative vision for the future.

"They must craft that vision without hesitation, and they must do it in a way that makes people want to be a part of it."