Everything was going the Conservatives’ way. They were building a good lead in the polls. The recovering economy was working in Stephen Harper’s favour. Michael Ignatieff had nothing in his department store window. His pushing for an unwanted election appeared to be backfiring.
But then, the big retreat. Harper looked at the flavourful prospects, turned and walked away. He caved to NDP demands on employment insurance to avoid going to the polls.
It’s not in the prime minister’s stern character to back off like that. The prime motivation, it appears, is he decided a majority was not in the offing. To survive he pretty much needs that majority and he wasn’t about to take the risk of not getting it.
Harper didn’t suffer for his decision. He could have been whacked for chickening out. He could have been mocked for relying on a coalition of sorts to avoid defeat in Parliament — this, having decried the whole idea of anyone aligning with socialists and separatists. But there’s a lot of conservative media in this land. They gave him a pass.
Instead, it was the NDP that — weirdly — took the brunt of the criticism. The New Democrats had been pushing for a more generous EI system. They got the government to come their way.
Canadians didn’t want an election now. The NDP’s acceptance of the PM’s reforms avoided one. Good on both counts. But instead of receiving plaudits, the Dippers lost the spin game.
Even though their polling is close to traditional levels, they were viewed as being desperate to avoid an election.
It’s true the New Democrats had long mocked the Liberals for propping up the government and here was Jack Layton doing that very thing. But, unlike the Liberals, this was only one time.
And EI reform was not a bad reason. The party had the image of being knee-jerk — of opposing everything the Conservatives did just for the sake of opposing them. This time they looked to be acting rather responsibly.
As for the Harper Conservatives, they have demonstrated a willingness to compromise and have likely assured themselves another six months in power. They could still be defeated on a confidence vote this fall, but it’s less likely.
Harper is gambling that his support will increase in the months to come. He decided that if he had to change his stripes and be in league with socialists, so be it. It’s politics. Shift happens.