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Conservative MP Chris Alexander is a potential successor to Bev Oda at CIDA. (Dave Chan For The Globe and Mail)
Conservative MP Chris Alexander is a potential successor to Bev Oda at CIDA. (Dave Chan For The Globe and Mail)

JEFFREY SIMPSON

Time to shuffle the deck, but Harper’s short on aces Add to ...

We are more than a year removed from the last federal election. The Harper Conservatives have done hard, controversial things with their majority. Predictably, they have suffered politically, if polls can be believed.

Polls, of course, are the most overworked, over-analyzed, and overrated part of politics, especially with so much time remaining before the next election. So let’s just say that the government has lost support since the last election, and leave it at that.

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After a year, a Prime Minister develops a feel for his cabinet, and for backbenchers elected in 2011. To say that the Conservative backbench is weak would be an understatement. So if, as is likely this summer, the Prime Minister shuffles his cabinet, it’s not like his hand will be full of high cards.

In Quebec, for example, where the Conservatives are in hopeless shape, the Prime Minister has only a handful of MPs anyway. So if he wants to do something, he might have to promote Maxime Bernier, who was a bust at foreign affairs as a minister, got embroiled in a contretemps leaving sensitive documents at his then-girlfriend’s place, and departed cabinet.

Mr. Bernier is a true conservative believer, though. He’s a Fraser Institute kind of guy, who thinks the market offers the best solution to just about every problem except herpes. He is therefore in tune with the government, if not his native province. But he is popular in the Beauce, his region of Quebec and, faute de mieux, should probably be given a more important job than his miserable little ministry of state.

Then there’s Vic Toews, the hard-line former justice minister, spokesperson for much of the government’s “tough on crime” legislation. It’s been widely mooted in Manitoba legal circles that Mr. Toews would welcome a judicial appointment, although not all Manitoba judges would welcome him.

Nonetheless, the raw politics of the future of the Conservative Party in Manitoba suggest the party cannot continue to be centred around Mr. Toews, who has been in politics a very long time. Therefore, the Prime Minister might look to Shelly Glover, who spent almost two decades with the Winnipeg Police Service before entering politics (and speaks some French), or Candice Hoeppner from Portage, who was the party’s darling when she led the incessant and ultimately successful campaign against the long-gun registry.

Elections are won or lost in Ontario, more than anywhere else. Mr. Harper has at least three backbench Ontario MPs ready for promotion, former ambassador Chris Alexander, who would seem a likely replacement at CIDA for Bev Oda who resigned Tuesday; Kellie Leitch, the pediatric orthopedic surgeon with more university degrees than anyone in caucus and a long Conservative pedigree; and Michael Chong who did something so unusual that he has never recovered – he resigned from cabinet on principle.

Mr. Chong did not agree with designating francophone Quebeckers as a “nation” within Canada, and so left cabinet. This lèse-majesté may still be a crippler. Moreover, Mr. Chong actually speaks his mind – on the need for parliamentary reform and new ways of selecting party leaders.

More heretical still for the Harperites, Mr. Chong actually believes deeply in climate change and wants a whole lot more done about the problem. For all these reasons, Mr. Chong theoretically should be on a fast track back to cabinet, but for all these reasons he might remain where he is.

Mr. Alexander and Ms. Leitch have mastered the apparently necessary art of publicly spinning the government line, but neither displays the humourless, attack-dog partisanship favoured as a political style by senior ministers.

The problem – a lack of attack-dog instincts – works against James Rajotte from Edmonton, arguably the most popular Conservative not in cabinet. That he is universally liked and respected as chair of the finance committee does him no good. Worse, he’s from Alberta in a cabinet already stuffed with Albertans.

It’s not hard to finger a bunch of Conservative ministers who should move on, or move back. This Prime Minister, like some of his predecessors, has been a bit of a softie in demoting underperformers. Not for him – as yet – a former British prime minister’s admonition that all good prime ministers must at some point be butchers.

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