Given the Ontario election result, the chances that Stephen Harper will step down have just shot up, a veteran Conservative insider was telling me. “Odds have gone from about one in 20,” he chuckled, “to about one in 10.”
That sounds about right. While it makes so much sense from so many points of view for the Prime Minister to realize that almost a decade in power is enough, no one expects him to do anything about it.
The Ontario vote was a rejection of conservative prescriptions. It saw Ontarians grant a majority to a left-leaning Liberal Party scarred by scandal and debt. The trendline is away from conservatives not only at the provincial level, but at the big city level where Toronto voters are disgusted with Mayor Rob Ford, and at the federal level where Mr. Harper has lost so much ground to Justin Trudeau’s Liberals.
You don’t have to be a reader of tea leaves to see the message. Hardly anyone is talking about it, but these and many other considerations suggest Mr. Harper should be seriously contemplating his future. It’s possible he can recoup enough of his support to score a minority victory next year. But where would that get him? Opposition parties would soon gang up to send that minority packing. As for the chance of Mr. Harper’s winning another majority, odds are not much better than for his stepping down.
Why would he go the long-shot route of another election when he could exit now with the status of a conqueror and guaranteed star-standing in the Conservative pantheon? With a legacy of unifying once-warring conservative factions; with having led the party to three election victories and only one defeat; with having advanced the right-side agenda in so many important areas?
Does he really want to risk the fate of so many other power-drunk leaders who overstayed their welcome and paid the price? Does he really want to face the possibility of the ultimate humiliation – a defeat by a Trudeau?
Any modern-day leader – not just this one – who has been in power almost a decade faces the roadblock of voter fatigue. It isn’t like the bygone days of limited press coverage. Now, leaders are in the public’s face every day. And it isn’t just those who feel Mr. Harper runs a morally bankrupt, authoritarian operation who want change. There’s a more widespread feeling that he has had his run, that it is someone else’s turn.
Another important consideration is that of agenda. Is there something big and pressing that Stephen Harper simply has to do and needs years to do it? There is no indication of such an endeavour.
The Prime Minister is confident that his economic record will save him. His government boasts of its economic record every day of the week. But is it having much impact? Over the past two years, he’s hardly budged from his lowly 30 per cent support level in the polls.
The Ontario election wasn’t all bad for the Tories. One positive takeaway is the continuation of a trend that, with the exception of Quebec, sees voters sticking with the incumbent party – the devil you know. Another is that a government weighed down by misconduct and sleaze can still win. A third is that history shows Ontario almost always votes for a different party federally than provincially. But on the most meaningful election question of where the tides are moving, the answer was clear: away from the conservative brand.
The logic of it all suggests the Prime Minister should call a leadership convention for this fall, orchestrate a smooth transition and collect the praises of Tories across the land.
But in the cauldron of power, one person’s sense of logic is not another’s. Instead, logic is sacrificed to ambition, to the eminence of high office. Toadies surround the commander, telling him what he wants to hear. There are too many hurdles to seeing things objectively. It makes the odds of Mr. Harper’s leaving no better than one in 10.