The Prime Minister's strategists might mistakenly conclude that the Quebec by-elections this week show that the war in Afghanistan is not as big a factor in Quebec as they feared, since the Conservatives took a seat from the anti-war Bloc Quebecois.
But beware, Stephen Harper.
The game will soon move to Parliament, where the Afghanistan issue will be front and centre, and could be used to bring down the government.
Bloc Quebecois leader Gilles Duceppe has suggested as much if he is not satisfied with the government's Throne Speech.
Meanwhile, calls for an end to the war-fighting and a move toward a negotiated settlement with insurgents in Afghanistan are getting louder - a position the Conservatives reject as "negotiating with terrorists."
The NDP's Jack Layton has been the only federal leader to support "a comprehensive peace settlement." The public, weary of seeing dozens of Canadian soldiers killed and little progress in stabilizing Afghanisan, may support the NDP's call if it gets the troops home as soon as possible.
There's no doubt that Harper owes Canada's troops clarity on the future of the mission. And certainly there has been little.
I got a call from a reporter the other day wanting our analysis of Harper's latest war musings. And that got me thinking, What is that wily fox Harper up to? There was a time when the PM refused to even recognize the fact that our current military commitment (which he rammed through Parliament) ends in February 2009. To him, the end date was just a bump in the road on the way to a war-fighting role in that country that could last many, many more years.
But as soon as Parliament left for the summer break, he declared that the mission would end in 2009 and he would not extend it unless he had a "consensus" from the opposition parties. In addition, he would put the issue to a vote in Parliament.
What's that? The guy who accused the opposition of caring more about the Taliban than Canadian soldiers now wants to work with the Liberals and others? The guy who said he would never "cut and run" is now ready to leave in 2009?
More confusing signs came in August's cabinet shuffle when Harper pulled the plug on his floundering Defence Minister, Gordon O'Connor. In an unexpected move, he appointed telegenic pro-war Foreign Affairs Minister Peter MacKay to take over Defence, and moved Quebecker Maxime Bernier into Foreign Affairs. It looked like Harper was back to Plan A: the Long War in Afghanistan.
Now the most recent news is that Harper is in no rush at all to hold a vote. When he spoke to reporters in Australia, his message was interpreted to mean that there may not be a vote at all after Parliament returns next month.
So what is he up to? There are two possibilities: either he has grudgingly accepted that he needs to change his government's pro-war stance, or he is simply trying to buy some time for his new ministers to rebuild public support for his embrace of the war.
Meanwhile, in an interesting twist, new by-election seats for the Conservatives and the NDP in Quebec give them, combined, a bigger majority of votes than the Liberals and Bloc Quebecois. Jack Layton could use his influence to push the Conservatives to end the counter-insurgency war, focus on training Afghan security forces, declare that our military commitment will end in 2009 and support Afghan peace negotiations that could break the back of the insurgency.
If Harper refuses, the Conservatives could face an election that has the war as its central issue - and they are on the wrong side.