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A Harper departure less far-fetched

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With every passing day, the notion Stephen Harper could pack it in before the next election and let someone else try to keep his fractious party whole enough to hang onto power in two years sounds less and less far-fetched.

Only a few months ago speculation the prime minister would not seek a fourth mandate in 2015 was the stuff that rainy day columns were made of.

When I discussed a summer book leave with my editors earlier this spring, we agreed I would come back to the column front early if circumstances warranted. Back then I thought I was setting the bar safely high when I used Harper's resignation as an example of a such a circumstance.

I still expect this column to be the last one I write for the Star until Labour Day, but the topic of Harper's departure is no longer academic.

Most successful leaders tend to overstay their welcome. Some go into one campaign too many. Others wait to see the lay of the land closer to a campaign before hastily saying goodbye, only to end up forcing their successor to face the music without much time to make an impression.

A rare few manage to take everyone by surprise, leaving before they are widely seen as a spent political force.

Lucien Bouchard is a recent example. In early 2001 the then-Quebec premier stunned everyone when he resigned at the midway point of his second mandate.

In contrast with Harper's Conservatives, Bouchard's PQ government was still riding high in the polls. But the premier could see the writing on the wall.

The party was growing increasingly restless over his inability to come up with the so-called winning conditions for another referendum on sovereignty. Quite a few p©quistes felt that, under his leadership, the PQ had betrayed its progressive ideals. Many rued his ironclad rule on the government.

With his base demobilizing, Bouchard knew winning another mandate would be difficult, regardless of what the mid-mandate polls suggested.

There are more similarities than differences between Bouchard and Harper's current predicament and regardless of the prime minister's actual intentions as to his future, his position has been deteriorating extraordinarily quickly this spring.

During the past few weeks, serious but also eerily familiar cracks in the party have surfaced.

In the wake of the abrupt replacement of the prime minister's chief of staff, issues that should be have resolved behind closed doors are playing out in public.

Some of them have festered into unfixable crisis. The resignation from caucus of MP Brent Rathgeber falls in that category. But the malaise is not limited to the back rows of the government.

Jim Flaherty, Harper's long-standing minister of finance, keeps insisting he loves politics and his job. He sounds like he was either publicly campaigning to keep his central role in the shuffle on Monday or scrambling to reassure a jittery corporate Canada the noise coming out of Ottawa is not that of a government spinning out of control.

Peter MacKay, who remains the leading figure of the progressive wing of the party, has threatened to leave if the terms that he agreed on to bring the Tories under the same tent as the Canadian Alliance a decade ago are amended at a national convention.

Jason Kenney -- a key architect of Harper's majority victory but also a would-be aspirant to his succession -- has been looking like an unhappy camper for all to see. If he is enthusiastic about the party's choice of a counter-offensive on the ethical and Senate front, he is hiding it well.

Meanwhile, morale is low in Conservative ranks in both houses. Leaks are suddenly bringing sensitive internal party information to the surface.

Harper may still be in full control of his PMO but it is less and less in control of the government and the political agenda.

Unless that changes quickly, the prime minister will not remain the sole master of his political destiny for much longer.


Chantal Hébert is national affairs columnist for the Toronto Star.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 18, 2013 A13

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