Crossing paths with a close associate of Brian Mulroney the other day, something quickly became clear. Prime Minister Stephen Harper had better be careful. The confidant said Mulroney was seething, close to the breaking point over the treatment of him by Harper’s office. He just might unload, he said, on Harper in a way that would be devastating. “You know how Brian gets.”

Brian Mulroney may not be popular among average Canadians, but among the Tory faithful he has a lot of admirers. Among historians he is becoming increasingly appreciated with time. He won two majority governments, something Stephen Harper will probably never do.

Because Mulroney is once again tangled up in the controversy over his taking money from arms dealer Karlheinz Schreiber, Harper has sought to distance the party from him. Worried as usual about nothing else except the political effect of things, Harper’s office leaked out word to the media Mulroney was no longer even a card-carrying Conservative.

Even if that were true — and Mulroney denies he threw out his membership card — it’s not something the prime minister’s office should be doing.

The Mulroney associate said he could understand the Harper team wanting to keep some distance in the formal sense. But even privately they were being “sons of … (rhymes with riches).” This is the well-known modus operandi of this government. If you’re of no use politically, you’re sent off to Alcatraz.

What’s unusual this time is that the row has spilled over, with Conservatives on each side of the Mulroney question going after one another in a caucus meeting and going to the media to air their discontent.

This is a party which, thanks largely to Stephen Harper, has been remarkably unified and disciplined over the last three years. Now there are cracks — and for no good reason. The Mulroney controversy was aired out last year before a parliamentary committee. Canadians did not appear to let the matter affect their judgment of the Harper government.

But by overreacting, the Prime Minister’s men have brought it into the spotlight. They have awoken long-simmering divisions between those on the old Reform side of the party who never liked Mulroney and those on the old Progressive Conservative side who remain his allies.

Brian Mulroney remains an influential man. That’s why Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff telephoned him (how quaint) recently to wish him happy birthday on his 70th. Had Prime Minister Harper done a little schmoozing like that, there would be none of these problems.

– Lawrence Martin is a Globe and Mail correspondent and author who writes about national affairs from Ottawa.

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