1. CRISIS POINT: The day he almost gave up power
Stephen Harper’s life and work made no sense to him if he wasn’t the prime minister of Canada. Having the title wasn’t his goal. He needed to hold on, long enough to change a country. Everything he had done in politics since 2002 was designed to unite his base and divide his enemies. Now his enemies were united. He was lost.
It was Monday afternoon, Dec. 1, 2008. On Harper’s desk sat a copy of the coalition deal Stéphane Dion, Jack Layton and Gilles Duceppe would sign in a public ceremony a few hours later. Its demure title blackened his mood even further: “A policy accord to address the present economic crisis.” The first paragraph gave the game away: this was about a “new government.” Not his.
At times like this, other leaders have been visited by close friends or trusted confidants who helped them look past the crisis of the moment toward history. But Stephen Harper has no close friend in politics, so the three men waiting outside his door would have to do.
Jim Prentice was the chairman of the cabinet operations committee, which had been holding its weekly meeting down the hall. The job of “ops” is to put out fires, and this mess qualified. Jay Hill was Prentice’s vice-chair, rough-hewn where Prentice was smooth. He had known Harper longer than the others, since they had first sat in the Commons as Reform party rookies in 1993. James Moore was the youngest minister in cabinet, just 33, eager, intense.
Ray Novak, the guardian at the PM’s door, let them in. Haltingly, Prentice laid out the ops committee’s consensus: Harper should ask the governor general to prorogue Parliament, suspending the legislative session almost before it had begun. Only three days earlier, Harper had promised Canadians he would put his government to a confidence vote that would determine its fate. Prorogation would cancel that vote. It was for the good of the country, Prentice said. Give everyone a chance to cool down.
Harper was tempted by another path. Let them win, he said, with no great conviction. Let Stéphane Dion try to run the country, with Jack Layton calling the shots and Gilles Duceppe sitting in judgment over the whole mess. It’ll fall apart in six months. We’ll pick up the pieces in the next election. Come back stronger than ever.
James Moore cut in. Prime Minister, he said, you can’t be sure it will work that way. They’ll be so terrified of facing the voters they’ll cling to one another for a long time. They may even make this thing work. You can’t know.
The Prime Minister was unconvinced. It fell to Jay Hill to make the strongest appeal. “Prime Minister,” he said quietly, “If you give up power now, I don’t know if you can survive as leader of the Conservative Party of Canada.”
It is hard to pick a highlight in Stephen Harper’s five years as Prime Minister, but that’s the low point right there. Harper started fighting back within hours. The coalition crisis ended so soon that already its details blur. But it indelibly marked the thinking of its near-victim. At every point since the immediate crisis ended, Harper has insisted, over the objections of Dion’s successor Michael Ignatieff, that the opposition parties will reunite if they see a chance.
Whenever the next election comes, he told Maclean’s in January 2009, “the electorate will know that if you’re not electing the Conservative government you’re going to be electing a coalition that will include the NDP and the separatists.”
“I really think he believes this,” one of his ministers says. “This is not a line.” On its face, it means the biggest confrontation of a career built on brinksmanship still lies ahead.
Meanwhile it is getting time to take stock. He has been Prime Minister for five years, longer than Lester Pearson. Not by accident, because in a House where the Conservatives have no natural allies, an accident is politically life-threatening. By tenacity. While he survives, he chips at the way the country is governed, avoiding grand gestures that could provide an easy target. It’s why he is determined to endure: because he needs the time. His method is not revolution, or even evolution. It’s erosion. The object of his steady attention isn’t the way Canada works, its laws and transfer dollars, not primarily, anyway. It’s the way Canadians think. That is what he wants to change. “Is this a centre-right country?” one of his closest campaign advisers asks rhetorically. “No.” Harper’s game is to change that.
New interviews with Conservative caucus members and current and former Harper advisers give fresh insight into Stephen Harper’s method. This winter, with no crisis looming, Harper’s circle has been more relaxed and frank than at some earlier moments. They feel freer to reminisce about the boss’s temperament and method, and to speculate on his goals. But sooner or later, even now, any discussion about how Harper manages to keep winning turns to the moment he almost lost it all.
The food in Lima was treacherous. Of 8,000 delegates at the APEC summit in Peru, Nov. 22 and 23, 2008, more than 100 developed upset stomachs or worse. The Peruvian government put out a news release blaming the weather in Lima, “characterized at this time of year by midday heat, but cool breezes in the mornings and afternoons,” for “upset stomachs” among “unprepared diners.”
Stephen Harper was one of the victims. The APEC food knocked him off his feet. After he landed back in Ottawa it mutated into a sullen and thuggish flu. His mood was foul and his body weak for days before Finance Minister Jim Flaherty tabled his fall economic update.
That moment came on Thursday, Nov. 27. The stakes were high. The election had ended as a debate about how to handle the looming recession. Harper had won by promising to avoid recession and deficit. Already those promises were fading, at least in the memory of the man who had made them. Before the ceviche cut him down in Peru, Harper had told Asia-Pacific heads of government that a jumbo dose of fiscal stimulus would be needed in many countries. But Flaherty’s fall update didn’t mention anything of the sort. What it did propose was an end to the $1.95-per-vote taxpayer-paid subsidy for political parties.
The idea, sources say now, came from the Conservative caucus, not from the top. Government MPs were not pleased to beat the Liberals, NDP or Bloc in their ridings, only to see voters bankroll the losing candidates’ future comeback attempts, whether they wanted to or not. The Conservatives figured the opposition parties might yelp at the end of those subsidies, but they wouldn’t bite. Conservatives got more votes than other parties, after all. They’d lose more free money.
Almost as soon as news of the vote-subsidy cut leaked on Wednesday night, though, it became clear the opposition parties meant to do more than yelp. “This means war,” the quote-o-matic NDP MP Pat Martin said.
Thursday, Flaherty tabled his statement in the Commons, making the threat real. All three opposition leaders spoke against it.
Friday, Dion’s Liberals announced they would table a no-confidence motion at the first opportunity. Friday afternoon, Harper walked downstairs to a scrum mike in the Centre Block foyer and announced he was postponing all votes in the Commons for a week. Plainly, he was buying time. Plainly, he had no better idea yet. Saturday, Transport Minister John Baird showed up at the CBC building on Queen Street in Ottawa to announce the government would not go ahead with the vote-subsidy cut.
No matter. In hotels across the capital, negotiating teams organized a coalition government, led by Dion, seconded by Layton, with a pledge of confidence-vote support from Duceppe. The negotiators showed up at the annual Press Gallery dinner on Saturday night flushed with excitement. In the cold outside the Museum of Civilization, Doug Finley, Harper’s dour Scottish campaign manager, stood cradling a scotch and taking a smoke break. One reporter suggested Harper’s options came down to “fight” or “contrite.”
“Oh, we won’t be contrite,” Finley said.
But the boss had no fight in him as late as Monday, Dec. 1. He just looked deflated in question period. It wasn’t until nearly 5 p.m. that he saw his shot. The coalition partners gathered in Parliament’s Railway Committee Room to sign their astonishing manifesto. Gilles Duceppe was one of the three, seated and treated as an equal.
“There are moments when this government talks to the country, to our supporters and our networks,” one member of Harper’s government said much later. “This wasn’t that. This was the country talking to us. Immediately after the press conference it was a kind of electric shock. Every phone line, every email, every blog, every radio commentary lit up like Vegas on jackpot day.”
“There had been a bit of a sense of defeat,” Chris Froggatt, a former ministerial chief of staff, said, “and then when that happened it was just a sense that we were handed an opportunity. It was like a gift to us.”
Yet later that evening, as Tories gathered for their annual Christmas party at Ottawa’s Westin Hotel, many of the rank and file were still in a coalition funk. In fact, one Conservative official says Harper himself seemed unsure what tone to take in addressing the crowd. It was his wife, Laureen, in a quiet moment in a kitchen off the main hall, with only a few other staffers in the room, who told him the faithful expected him to show leadership. So he needed to rally his own spirits. Harper ignored a prepared text and delivered a rousing attack calling the coalition a separatist-led attack on democracy. “It sounded like a come-from-behind speech by a coach in a basketball movie,” one partygoer said.
The next day Harper just about ate Dion in question period. “Mr. Speaker, the highest principle of Canadian democracy is that if one wants to be prime minister, one gets one’s mandate from the Canadian people, and not from Quebec separatists.” In the gallery above, Harper’s staff cheered and pumped their fists until Hill security guards shushed them.
As always, Harper’s instincts were bolstered with as much polling as his staff could hurry to gather. “We reached out to Tories who were in the market-research community who were already in the field and asked them to add questions about the coalition,” one staffer said. “Whatever they were originally polling on. It could have been about corn syrup.”
What they found was a high level of concern about what Dion and the others were up to. Duceppe’s presence was the biggest source of concern, followed by the prospect of Dion as prime minister. The presence of New Democrats in the federal cabinet fell a distant third on the list of hot buttons.
Conservatives started hitting those buttons with every tool at hand. “The whole gamut,” the staffer said. “Paid advertising, grassroots mobilization, events, a media blitz.”
Perhaps the campaign’s biggest target was the involvement of the Bloc. Never mind that the party would have no members in the government; its support for the Liberals and NDP, and Duceppe’s presence at the announcement, was enough for the Harper crew. “This was so hot among NDP-Reform switchers in Western Canada,” one of them said. Some Conservatives, including some who spoke on cable-TV political shows for the party, were very worried that all this talk about a “coalition with the separatists” would hurt the Conservatives in Quebec, where the Bloc’s legitimacy is unquestioned. Harper’s campaign team was well aware of the danger.
They ignored it. “Everyone knew that the use of the word ‘separatist’ was inflammatory,” one of them said. “But that was a problem for another day. We had to save the government.”
In the end they did. On Wednesday night the party leaders broadcast statements to the nation, making the case for keeping or rejecting the coalition. Dion’s video was delivered late and out of focus. The fight went right out of the Liberals. On Thursday, Harper paid a long visit to Rideau Hall and Parliament was prorogued. Four days later, Dion announced his resignation as Liberal leader.
The attempted coalition was gone. But not forgotten. Conservatives marvelled at the spike in support for their party at the height of the crisis, with well over 40 per cent saying they would vote for the besieged party. Thousands backed that sentiment with cash. “We’d never raised so much money,” the senior campaign official said. “It was a banner month for fundraising.”
Within a month, Harper was telling interviewers the coalition crisis would be replayed if Conservatives don’t win a majority at the next election. He has not swayed from that message. In some ways, it’s an odd message: if the choice is Conservative majority or all-but-Conservative coalition, then how will the Conservatives be able to govern with a minority like the one they have now? A member of Harper’s government simply shrugged when that question was put to him.
What’s clear is that Harper hasn’t forgotten the day his enemies almost took his job from him. He cannot believe they won’t try again. Until then he governs as he believes he has governed for every day he has had this job: under siege.
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