OTTAWA -- Prime Minister Stephen Harper left Canada for a NATO meeting Thursday to deal with a fractious Afghan president only to be saddled with the extraordinary spectacle of two of his senior ministers squabbling in public.
Peter MacKay laid bare divisions within the Conservative cabinet over the government's refusal to grant landing rights for airlines from the United Arab Emirates when the defence minister suggested that decision battered relations with a longtime Arab ally.
"We have work to do in repairing the relationship with the U.A.E," MacKay said tersely on Thursday when asked if he agreed with the cabinet decision.
He then joined the prime minister for what had to be an interesting six-hour flight to Lisbon for the summit of NATO leaders.
John Baird, the government House leader who led the charge around the cabinet table to deny the extra landing slots to Emirates airlines to protect Air Canada, insisted Thursday the government had made the right call.
He was unrepentant when asked about MacKay's contention Canada needed to patch up the relationship with the U.A.E.
"When the cabinet of the U.A.E. meets, I suspect they make decisions that are in the best interests of the U.A.E. We make decisions which are in the best interests of Canada. That's not something that we apologize for."
The exchange came a day after MacKay was overheard telling a Conservative senator Canada could have continued using a secret military base in U.A.E. if the government had agreed to their request for more landing airport slots for two Emirati airlines.
Astral Radio bureau chief Daniel Proussalidis, who reported on Wednesday's conversation, also said MacKay told Sen. Michael Meighen the dispute pushed back relations with the Arab country by a decade.
Conservative sources say MacKay's open grumbling is a sign of recent frustrations over how he is being treated in cabinet. They say MacKay is angry at how the Prime Minister's Office cut him out of discussions about the next phase of the Afghan mission in the past few weeks.
What makes MacKay's crankiness potentially troublesome for Harper are rumours he was courted earlier this year by a major Toronto law firm. Former environment minister Jim Prentice left cabinet last week for a job as vice-president of the CIBC, leaving a hole in the progressive side of the Conservative cabinet.
-- The Canadian Press