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Jeffrey Simpson (Brigitte Bouvier For The Globe and Mail)

Jeffrey Simpson

(Brigitte Bouvier For The Globe and Mail)

JEFFREY SIMPSON

The government sets tone with a script and a scowl Add to ...

Ted Menzies is one of nature’s gentlemen. He just might be the most popular member of Parliament among his peers. He’s the Minister of State for Finance, a junior cabinet post, and he would likely have been promoted in the forthcoming cabinet shuffle.

Instead, Mr. Menzies is leaving politics. He’s told Prime Minister Stephen Harper that he won’t be running again. Was he afraid of losing? Are you kidding? He owns the southern Alberta riding of Macleod. He’s a member of the Conservatives’ “70 per cent club” – Alberta MPs who win more than 70 per cent of a riding’s votes. He could have continued his political career as long as he desired. Instead, he’ll be doing something else after the next election.

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Mr. Menzies was the last former Alberta Progressive Conservative left in the new Conservative Party created by Stephen Harper. When Mr. Menzies sought the nomination, he ran against a clutch of Reform Party types who cancelled each other out and allowed him to slide to victory. Once nominated, the election was a formality.

All the other Alberta Conservative MPs are either from the old Reform Party or weren’t involved in electoral politics before running for office. With his departure, the Alberta caucus will shift just a bit further to the right.

Mr. Menzies’s moderate breed is rare in Alberta Conservative circles, where most MPs are open or closet supporters of the provincial Wildrose Party. Of course, Mr. Menzies followed his party’s script as a cabinet minister, but he was almost anti-partisan, or at least seemed to be, in a party where hyper-partisanship and all-pervasive combat set the tone.

As the summer cabinet shuffle nears, much breath is being wasted on whether ministerial changes will make much of a difference for a government slumping so badly in the polls. Two years ago, the Conservatives enjoyed twice the support of the Liberals; today, they trail the Liberals by many points. In many polls, the Conservatives have dropped below 30-per-cent support for the first time since they were first elected seven years ago.

Cabinet shuffles themselves don’t change political fortunes. Most voters can’t name more than two or three of them. They do know prime ministers, and vote more than anything else on what they think of them. And like other prime ministers, Mr. Harper isn’t about to change his demeanour or style after all these years. The Conservatives will win or lose with him, not a new cabinet.

One wonders, as Mr. Menzies departs, what the government would have been like had his gentlemanly attitude been more on display from this government. A government’s tone and style gradually shape an electorate’s view. Do people feel comfortable with the men and women running the show? That’s usually a more pertinent question than whether this or that policy change is understood, accepted or rejected.

And this government’s tone and style are beginning to wear on more and more Canadians. The ferocious partisanship, the excessive secrecy, the negative television ads, the mendacity directed at opponents, the overwhelming sense that enemies (including most of the media, of course) abound, the almost manic preoccupation with spin and image and now the little scandals from the Senate have created the impression, outside the Conservative core, of a government that has ideology and agenda but not much heart, empathy, feeling or understanding for anyone who doesn’t share that ideology and agenda.

Mr. Menzies smiles a lot, not for effect but because that’s the way he is. As such, he stood out in a cabinet full of scowlers. Ask yourself: How many senior Conservatives smile? Most are so scripted by the Prime Minister’s Office that they dare not show whatever humour they possess, or they turn it into sarcastic blasts at the opposition.

There will be a cabinet shuffle soon, and some new faces will appear. They will adapt to the government’s tone and style, which are set at the top.

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