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Conservative Leader Stephen Harper salutes the crowd after a victory speech at his Calgary election headquarters on Oct. 14, 2008. (Tom Hanson/The Canadian Press)
Conservative Leader Stephen Harper salutes the crowd after a victory speech at his Calgary election headquarters on Oct. 14, 2008. (Tom Hanson/The Canadian Press)

Jeffrey Simpson

The Tories' secret: They want an election Add to ...

The political leader who would probably prefer an election but can't be seen to angle for one is Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

The Conservative line has been: We are governing, soberly and in the national interest, and therefore see no need for an election. Maybe so, but with the New Democrats going backward (hence their sudden support of the government to avoid an election) and the Liberals going nowhere, it would be awfully tempting for the Conservatives to contrive some parliamentary vote that would bring their government down.

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Yesterday, in Saint John, Mr. Harper offered the latest update on his stimulus package. That the message was uniformly upbeat and self-congratulatory surprised no one; that it was delivered in Saint John would surprise anyone with a parliamentary memory.

How many times in opposition did the various iterations of conservativism - Progressive Conservatives, Reform, Canadian Alliance and Conservatives - rail against Liberal governments for delivering important economic messages outside Parliament? Dozens of times? Maybe hundreds?

But that was then, as they say, and this is now. The Conservatives are in office and, like previous parties in power, they want the airwaves to themselves, with backdrops manufactured for television and an attentive crowd in attendance. Not for them the heckling and barracking of Parliament, nor the notion of sharing scrum time with the opposition.

It has been this way for weeks: one Conservative "announcement" after another, repeating things announced months ago in the budget. They have dominated the airwaves with good-news messages, of which yesterday's was the culmination. What better springboard for an election?

Except that the Conservatives have repeatedly denied that they want a vote. So, were they to manufacture one, it would be necessary for tactical reasons to lay the blame on the opposition parties, preferably the Liberals.

The Liberals talk a much bolder game than they are ready to play. At a recent meeting of the party's campaign committee, as the representatives from each province reported on developments in their area, the cumulative result was gloomy: The Liberals weren't going anywhere; if anything, the party was sliding backward in a few regions.

The bad news continued yesterday with the headline-grabbing resignation of Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff's Quebec lieutenant, MP Denis Coderre, who was miffed at the leader's overturning his recommendation about who should run in Outremont riding. "I no longer have the moral authority" to carry on, an aggrieved Mr. Coderre said, adding that the "Toronto" crowd around Mr. Ignatieff needed a shakeup.

The Liberal leadership's macho push to bring the government down would, if successful, more than likely bring the government down on the Liberals' head. Having essentially agreed with the government's basic foreign and economic policies, leaving the rhetoric aside, the Liberals have nothing to run on, except to appeal to those who long ago decided they did not like the Prime Minister.

As for the NDP, it is posing as the party that wants to make Parliament work, having spent most of the previous three years demanding an election at every turn to let Canadians throw out the Conservative rascals. The reason the New Democrats have changed their position has nothing to do with principle or with changes the party might extract on unemployment reform, but because the NDP feared the realization of its own loud rhetoric in favour of an election.

The NDP is dealing from a position of weakness. The Liberals think they are dealing from a position of strength. The difference is that whereas the NDP implicitly acknowledges its weakness by supporting the government, the Liberals delude themselves about their strength by opposing it.

Most voters don't follow politics closely, or at all, which is among the reasons that party standings in the ubiquitous polls are meaningless between elections, despite the significance accorded them by media pundits.

What counts are underlying trends that, come election time, might manifest themselves. Instead of party standings, think of comparative leadership standings, managerial competence and voters' optimism about the future. On almost all of these counts, Mr. Harper leads Mr. Ignatieff.

It must therefore be awfully tempting for the Conservatives, having spent all that taxpayers' money on ads promoting themselves through the Economic Action Plan, having doled out more billions of dollars than any government since the Second World War, having governed politically on the theory that "an announcement a day keeps the Liberals at bay" and having avoided a serious mistake the past six months or so, to find the means of defeating themselves, thereby laying off the blame for a vote on one or more of the opposition parties, and so try their luck in an election campaign, at the start of which they would be tantalizingly close to a majority government.

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