Stephen Harper is trending. If you’re looking for more clues a federal election may be in the offing, the former PM’s re-emergence into the public spotlight can be taken as another sign. It’s also more evidence of just how badly Conservative Party fortunes are flagging under Erin O’Toole.
Every time it seems the Cons are in trouble, Harp comes out from behind the curtain like some kind of magic dragon to roar and rile up the base. This time around it was on Joe Lonsdale’s American Optimist podcast to wank about “woke” culture and the Libs’ financial supports for the pandemic, which Harper describes as “overkill.”
Predictable, but also funny, since Harper’s consulting firm was among those to avail themselves of the federal wage subsidy for businesses created by the Libs. Cons gonna con.
In any event, some notable Ottawa commentators are having wet dreams about a Harper return to politics with Maclean’s commissioning a poll to suggest that with Harp leading the Cons, the party might have a shot at winning the next election. Wow, he’d cut the current Liberal lead in the polls by a whole two-thirds!
Better still for the Cons, Harper would (allegedly) “also attract support that’s not currently available to O’Toole,” with 11 per cent of Liberal voters saying they would switch their vote to the Cons if Harper were the leader.
Don’t bet on a Harper return a la The Terminator. He’s too comfortable playing the part of eminence grise of the global Conservative movement as chair of the International Democrat Union.
Besides, he’s already doing a bang-up job of ruining the party from behind the scenes.
On those rare occasions when Harper has come up for air since his election defeat in 2015, it has usually been to play father figure and quiet any disconcerting noise that may be going on in party circles. Right now, the howls getting louder in the background are about O’Toole’s leadership. Some conservative commentators suggest that a full-fledged mutiny is already underway.
Not quite a year into O’Toole’s tenure as leader, and the base is already having profound doubts. The Cons are a mess. They’re imploding right before our eyes.
It’s so bad that they’re bleeding support in fortress Alberta. There, the newly-formed separatist Maverick Party is planning to run a shitload of candidates in the next election. Hence, O’Toole’s recent pledge to change the federal stabilization program to help Alberta if Canadians elect a Conservative government.
O’Toole is also facing a new challenge from a former leadership contender. Ousted anti-vaxx MP Derek Sloan was in Calgary this week to announce he’s starting his own party – and maybe even join forces with People’s Party of Canada and Maxime Bernier.
Just like the Reform wave that killed the PC Party 30 years ago, the current incarnation of the party looks headed for another split. Only this time, it’s a more virulent strain of conservatism (see Trumpism) that’s challenging the party status quo.
Where does Harper fit in the current maelstrom?
He’s remained an influential voice in the party apparatus since his electoral defeat. But rather than the saviour that some would like to make him out to be, Harper has been an albatross around the party’s neck, a key architect of the current road the Cons are on to oblivion.
Harper’s resounding electoral defeat was followed by the disaster that was Andrew Scheer’s leadership, who Harper had anointed to be his successor. Who could forget Harper showing up out of nowhere at the party convention to save Scheer from the fire when it looked like Bernier would take the leadership.
Alas, Scheer proved to be too awkward and too chummy with the SoCons and nincompoops on the party’s far right fringe to be palatable to mainstream Canadians. He also couldn’t talk his way out of a paper bag.
O’Toole was supposed to change all that. He pitched himself as the “True Blue” Conservative in the leadership race to replace Scheer, but ended up being the compromise choice – in other words, the only candidate who could stop Harper’s arch nemesis, former PC leader Peter MacKay, from winning and taking the party back to the political centre (horrors).
O’Toole has been held hostage by those same forces in the party. To say he has been indecisive would be an understatement. He’s been all over the place, pulled here and there by bad advisers. On the one hand he says he’s pro-choice. On the other, his staffers are helping anti-abortion candidates win party nominations for the next election.
More to the point, O’Toole has an image problem and that goes for both members of the party and Candian voters. To some rank and file, he’s not tough (read: Conservative) enough. All the toing and froing, meanwhile, has caused most Canadians to have no idea what he stands for.
It’s gotten to the point with the party’s base that O’Toole’s handlers are photoshopping muscles on shots of him out for a run to make him look more muscular.
Most Ottawa observers expected O’Toole to have a bit of a rough ride to start given some of the existing party divisions when he took over. But the Cons’ electoral prospects have only gotten worse.
Now, the party is not only trailing Trudeau and the Libs in public opinion polls, but sinking dangerously closer to the third-place NDP by some counts. At this rate, the Cons are destined for obscurity.
Harper is not helping the cause. Rather than make Canadians feel nostalgic every time they see his face, it’s more likely to remind them why they bounced him and his American-inspired brand of populism from office in the first place.