MONTREAL - For those Stephen Harper loyalists who believed the party Thursday celebrating Brian Mulroney's 1984 electoral victory would be a display of renewed party unity, the evening was a clear miscalculation.

Members of cabinet stood in uneasy silence as the former prime minister made a joke at Harper's expense, tipped his hat to NDP and Liberal politicians, and passionately defended U.S. President Barack Obama's health-care fight where Harper has not.

In fact, he did not mention Harper's name once. In a 40-minute speech, there was only one indirect reference to the prime minister - and it wasn't a happy one.

"Did everyone make sure they have their membership card?" Mulroney quipped, a reference to Harper's attempt to distance himself from Mulroney by suggesting he was no longer a member of the party.

One prominent Conservative from the Reform side of the family grumbled after the speech was over: "Well, what did you expect?"

Mulroney waxed nostalgic about a day when leaders would take courageous decisions, and not govern merely for "easy headlines in 10 days," but for "a better Canada in 10 years," a reference to the obsession with tactical advantage that dominates contemporary discussion on Parliament Hill.

Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Danny Williams, who has had his share of run-ins with the current federal Tories, seemed to put a finer point on it.

"The people of Canada are looking to mobilize around strong leadership, but I think right now there isn't one single person who has the charisma of Trudeau or the savvy of Brian Mulroney," Williams said.

"And that isn't without any lack of respect to the current leaders."

There was a lot that Mulroney didn't say that also spoke volumes about the stark differences between Harper and Mulroney, and between the party's electoral golden age of the '80s and its current-day incarnation.

Take the crowd, for instance.

The ballroom at Montreal's Sheraton Centre was filled to capacity with 1,500 enthusiastic conservatives, lobbyists, and curious onlookers.

The energy was reminiscent not only of the heyday of the Progressive Conservative party, but also of the Liberal party at their height, even though many of the participants were elderly.

There was a marked camraderie within the crowd that is often absent from current Conservative events, as people clinked cocktail glasses and hugged friends they hadn't seen in years. A sprinkling of Liberals mingled easily in the crowd. Women in haute couture mingled with men in Stetson hats.

Tories ascribe the easy atmosphere to Mulroney's chummy efforts at team-building during his days in office.

"Brian loved his caucus, he loved his party, and you know what, Brian, we love you," said Quebec Premier Jean Charest, a former Mulroney cabinet minister and party leader.

Harper's style commands diligent respect - rather than expressions of love and affection - from his caucus.

But perhaps the starkest contrast raised at the event was the fact that the party in 1984 had actually sealed the ultimate electoral deal, and won a majority, something Harper has only flirted with.

Longtime Conservative Goldy Hyder hopes the evening will mark a new start for the party.

"Anyone who knows the Conservative party and (victories) in its history knows that it has always been a leader who has recognized the disparate parts of the conservative party (and) brought it together with a vision for the country, and that will be a reminder to everyone who's here now. That is how you achieve success in Canada."

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