At the same time as the news arrived yesterday saying the Canadian and Ontario governments would give auto companies up to $4 billion in loans, a large-sample public opinion poll was released by Leger Marketing.

It showed that 69 per cent of Canadians oppose big-time assistance for the auto sector. In Ontario, where the economy is so reliant on that sector, 60 per cent oppose such aid, while only 17 per cent approve.

The business of governance is tough — and getting tougher. What was Prime Minister Stephen Harper to do? Let the companies go under? There are plenty of preconditions that go with the auto lifeline — conditions that haven’t yet been met. The Conservatives said they were in accord with the tough measures being taken by U.S. President Barack Obama, who fired the head of General Motors and who will make assistance dependent upon deep restructuring. That perception might do some good for the Tories, who are starting to look like they need a lifeline as well.

The same Leger poll came with depressing news for the party. It showed that Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff is fav­oured over Harper as the best leader to manage the economy. He gets the nod from 41 per cent of Canadians, compared to 32 per cent for the prime minister. This even though Harper has an economic background while Ignatieff does not. This even though the Conservatives brought in a big stimulus budget supported by the Liberals.

There’s a typical political trend in evidence here. When the economy goes south, the party in power tends to get the blame, no matter what it does.

The pollster, Jean-Marc Leger, said there is now a strong tide favouring the Liberals, which will be hard for the Conservatives to overcome. This will renew speculation that Harper will not be sticking around long enough to fight the next election. He’s had three electoral kicks at the can. If he couldn’t win a majority against the weakling Stéphane Dion before the recession set in, how could he possibly do so in the middle of an economic plunge against a more formidable Liberal chief?

The problem for the Conservatives is they do not have an outstanding leadership candidate in waiting. Jim Prentice, Peter MacKay and Jason Kenney are names who are mentioned, but none has a big wave of support within the party. Quebec Premier Jean Charest, a leader of the Conservatives in the 1990s, has won three straight elections in Quebec and may soon be looking for a new challenge. But he is a stranger to Ottawa now. It is unlikely, even if he was interested, that he would get the call.

That leaves Stephen Harper.

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