Stephen Harper holds a distinction no other prime minister can claim: No other PM has improved as much in successive elections as he and his Conservative Party.
After coming to office, most prime ministers see their seat numbers fall in subsequent campaigns. In his three victories, Mr. Harper has substantially improved his seat count each time. The only other prime minister to achieve this over three campaigns was Wilfrid Laurier in the elections of 1896, 1900 and 1904. His seat totals went from 117 to 128 to 137. But Mr. Harper’s increases have been more impressive. He rose from 124 in 2006 to 143 in 2008 to 166 in 2011.
Next week marks the seventh anniversary of his arrival in power and the odds are there will be quite a few more of them. Canadians have a habit of according their prime ministers long incumbencies. Four prime ministers – John A. Macdonald, Laurier, Mackenzie King and Pierre Trudeau – served more than 15 years. Several others served eight years or more: Robert Borden, Louis St. Laurent, Brian Mulroney and Jean Chrétien.
With still plenty of time in his current term, Mr. Harper will join the group of long-time tenants and it’s even possible he will one day make the 15-year club. Opposition party members will quietly tell you that without amalgamation or a co-operation deal of some kind among progressive parties, the chances of unseating the Conservatives are small. Reducing them to a minority is well possible, they feel, but not throwing them out.
The key to longevity of our long-lasting leaders is to have circumstances beyond their control work in their favour. Mackenzie King lost the 1930 election, but was saved by the Great Depression that sunk the Conservatives and ushered him back to power. A defeated and retired Pierre Trudeau was resurrected by the freak accident of the Tories self-destructing shortly after coming to power in 1979. Jean Chrétien had the good fortune of seeing his opposition divide itself into little pieces courtesy of the 1993 election. Stephen Harper was handed the sponsorship scandal, weak opposition leaders and so much vote-splitting on the left that, like Mr. Chrétien, winning was made easier.
The skills of all these leaders should not be underestimated. But so much, here and everywhere in politics, is a matter of chance. If it had been Mitt Romney who got a momentum-turner late in the U.S. presidential campaign instead of the one given Barack Obama by Hurricane Sandy, the outcome might well have been different. In Antony Beevor’s new book, The Second World War, he notes how Winston Churchill was dancing in the streets at the news of Pearl Harbor – the stroke of fortune for him that brought the United States full bore into the war. Without that and the other stroke, Hitler’s force-depleting obsession with destroying the Soviet Union, how much of a hero would Winnie have become?
More than by his decisions, good or bad, Mr. Harper’s future will likely be determined by whether Providence continues to pivot in his favour. Currently, the country’s political dynamic sets up splendidly for him. He can, strange as it seems, do poorly and still win. In the past year or more, he has dropped five or six points in the polls. The opposition parties, by contrast, have all had good years. The New Democrats elected a strong leader in Thomas Mulcair and maintained the new-found strength they gained in the 2011 election. Bob Rae kept the Liberals afloat and Justin Trudeau has set their hopes ablaze. The Bloc Québécois got back on its feet in 2011. The Greens showed they aren’t going away.
Normally such developments would be a source of worry to the incumbent. But Mr. Harper finds himself relatively unthreatened. His opponents are dividing up the vote among themselves all the more. It is by way of these kinds of twists of fate that members of our club of longest-serving prime ministers are made.
Mackenzie King and the Liberals won fewer seats than the Conservatives in the October, 1925 election, but remained in power for eight months and subsequently won the September, 1926, election. In the original print and earlier online versions of this column, he was incorrectly described as having lost two elections in the 1920s.