For the first time as prime minister, Stephen Harper is facing public criticism from within his own flock.
His sometimes-strategist Tom Flanagan told interviewer Steve Paikin last week that Mr. Harper has dug himself into a hole, primarily on account of last November’s budget update. Monte Solberg, who used to serve in the Harper cabinet, said the PM’s budget could lead to long-term deficits and criticized Mr. Harper for not offering the country a vision. Tasha Kheirridin of the Fraser Institute said conservatives feel betrayed by his budget.
For the strong-armed PM who once exerted absolute control, the lustre has worn off. His defenders say he had no choice but to bring in a liberal budget, that his minority would have been defeated if he had done otherwise. That may be true. But the no-choice scenario is one that was largely brought on by Mr. Harper himself.
His strategic budget-statement disaster of November reset the scales in the other side’s favour. It resulted in a quick change in the Liberal leadership. Without that change, Liberals would presently be engaged in a divisive leadership fight.
Mr. Harper would have had a free hand with the budget and other measures. It was his own failure to foresee the dismal economic tides (when most everyone else foresaw them) that led to his miscalculation of promising balanced budgets for years to come. He had to completely reverse himself. It was his government’s excessive spending in the two years prior that needlessly depleted the big surpluses Ottawa previously enjoyed.
With the trend swinging liberal to the south for the border and edging in that direction here, Mr. Harper realizes he has to start sounding more and more liberal to survive. He has to turn his back on his own hard-woven political philosophy. He can do that. He is a leader driven by power-lust and political calculations far more than public policy. Hence the Solberg criticism, echoed by many others, on his never having offered the country a vision.
But the problem in such circumstances is that given a choice between a faux liberal in Stephen Harper and a real one in Michael Ignatieff, people will opt for the real one.
The momentum is clearly on Mr. Ignatieff’s side. Sensing this, realizing Mr. Harper has already had three electoral kicks at the can, Conservatives are starting to contemplate alternatives. Jim Prentice, Peter MacKay and Jason Kenney are the names most frequently mentioned. There is also a former leader of the federal Tories who is still at large in Quebec. His name is Jean Charest.