Friday, December 5, 2008

Harper's Dodge

Stephen Harper's suspension of Parliament was a surprise.  I didn't expect the Governor General to grant it in the face of a confidence vote.  My guess is that had he asked for anything beyond January 26th, she would have refused.  But its still dirty pool.  You shouldn't be able to prorogue the house to avoid a confidence vote.

Given the amazing events of the last week, it would be foolish to try and predict what will come next.  Here at Fools 'R Us (aka Squidhammer), that's our specialty.  So here goes.

Harper made two critical blunders last week.  The first and most important was the "don't worry, be happy" economic statement.  The ideological slant and dodgy numbers presented have torpedoed both Harper's credibility and that of his Finance Minister, the contemptible Jim Flaherty.  Canada, like the rest of the world, is facing an enormous crisis.  Telling us that we are not just makes the Torys look stupid.

Second, Harper gave in to his partisan instincts by trying to cut off funding to the opposition parties.  This was plain stupidity as it gave the opposition the choice of cutting their own throats or grasping for power.  Harper should have been able to see which they would choose.  Worse, the funding measure was not known to the caucus in advance.  If it had, they would have seen it as a serious tactical error, but Harper didn't give them the chance.

Both errors were egregious, but separately non-fatal.  It was the combination that turned the trick.  If the political funding issue gave the opposition the  motive, the economic statement provided the opportunity.  When motive met opportunity, the means was conjured.  How motivated they were is reflected in the compromises they were willing to make to form the coalition.  In particular, the agreement of all on Stephan Dion becoming Prime Minister is telling.  It suggests a certain desperation on the part of both the NDP and the Bloc.  By the time means, motive and opportunity had merged, it was too late for Harper to retreat.  His withdrawal of the political funding measure made no difference.  Had  he not been able to suspend Parliament, he would have been leader of the Opposition by the middle of next week.

The problem Harper has now is that the Opposition knows it can take and hold power.  That's a fundamental difference from the situation before the crisis.  Despite an apparently decisive win by Harper in the court of public opinion, and his successfully dodging the confidence vote, the genie won't go back in the bottle.  The numbers from the recent election gave Harper a functional majority.  This was because no two of the Opposition could defeat him, it required all three.  It would have been relatively easy to maintain the notion that all three could not combine to defeat him while preserving sufficient credibility to win the inevitably following election.  Now, things are different.  By forcing the crisis, the would-be coalition partners have exposed Harper's vulnerability.  The Conservatives demonization of the Bloc shows that they are willing to sacrifice Quebec to hold power, and are thus probably unable to win a majority under any circumstances.  That's huge because  it removes the  chief worry of the Liberals: a wipe-out like the Conservatives in 1993.  Rather than facing a collapse in their core Quebec vote in a new election, Harper's antics of the last week suggest the possibility of a modest come-back, even with Stephan Dion.  Since Dion is toast anyway and would do worse in English Canada if there were a snap election, look for his early departure.  If the Liberals can replace Dion quickly and his successor doesn't turn out to be a clod, then they can be confident of surviving an election.  Harper's nuclear option, a snap election, is now far less of a threat to all three of the Opposition Parties.  Especially since they may be able to counter with a coalition and take the election threat off the table entirely.

So Harper needs a corker of a budget on January 26.  Depending on what the Liberals do with Dion, an election may be his best-case scenario.  Despite the revulsion in the West for the coalition, Harper would have some explaining to do if we ended up in another election.  This would be his fourth election and without a Quebec break-through his chances of a majority are slim.  Last week's rhetoric would seem to preclude that break-through permanently for Harper.  What do you do with a leader who can't deliver a majority despite four tries?  Usually the Conservatives have the knives out long before this point.  Harper's Stalinist management style has kept them in line.  But Stalin had one trait Harper lacks.  Stalin won the big games.  Just as the Opposition would eventually rebel against Harper's incendiary style, so eventually will the caucus.  In particular, the Harris gang are ruthless and ambitious.  They have no loyalty whatsoever and will gladly eat Harper raw the moment they perceive he has become a roadblock to that ambition.  With his staggering blunders of the last week, he has lost his aura of invincibility.  He may get it back, but I doubt it.  The moment the crisis has passed, either through an election or the installation of a coalition after the January budget, Harper will be like Sean Connery in The Man Who Would Be King.  He's fucked.