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Guy Giorno, chief of staff to Prime Minister Stephen Harper, is shown in May of 2004. (Louie Palu/The Globe and Mail)
Guy Giorno, chief of staff to Prime Minister Stephen Harper, is shown in May of 2004. (Louie Palu/The Globe and Mail)

Inside the PMO

'Can't miss' Giorno is slipping on the political ice Add to ...

It has been a long 10 months since the day Guy Giorno won over the Conservative Party's backbench with a rousing speech at its summer conference.

Since then, the government has almost fallen, the party has been split over its relationship with Brian Mulroney, and now the head of the civil service is quitting. Mr. Giorno, Stephen Harper's chief political operative, has become the lightning rod for a lot of it.

About a month or so after taking over as chief of staff of the Prime Minister's Office, the 44-year-old lawyer was given a standing ovation by MPs after promising to open the lines of communication and provide a new respect for backbench MPs. Today, though, that early promise appears to have been replaced by controversy.

"You get different perspectives depending on who you talk to, but there are some concerns that some of the things that were said last summer have not been implemented," said Rahim Jaffer, the former MP who stays in close touch with his colleagues and who acted as the party's caucus chairman at the time.

"I think that there's definitely not the same sort of interaction that a lot of MPs would have hoped."

Since arriving on the scene, Mr. Giorno has won an election, passed a budget and has reorganized the PMO. But he's also been in the middle of a series of difficult events that include the November update, the storm surrounding the leak that Mr. Mulroney was no longer a member of the party, and the decision of the Clerk of the Privy Council, Kevin Lynch, to depart.

"He's like Harper," said one caucus member, who asked not to be identified by name. "He is very enigmatic, hard to read, often pleasant to deal with and a guy with a bunch of agendas that seem to be in play that you're never quite sure of."

He is also extremely loyal to the Prime Minister, one factor, sources say, that may have led to a cooling off between the PMO and the Privy Council Office, headed by Mr. Lynch.

Sources say that Mr. Giorno was concerned about Mr. Lynch's access to the Prime Minister. There were other reported flashpoints, including the speed with which economic stimulus funds were being delivered - Mr. Giorno was apparently more inclined to speed up the pace of stimulus spending - and disagreements over issues such as whether to spend money to help out small television stations.

Within the bureaucracy, Mr. Giorno has been seen as a PMO chief more intent on using the civil service to implement policy, and less likely to reach into it for policy and strategic advice.

Greg Lyle, a friend and political colleague of Mr. Giorno, said he was surprised by news reports that the two men did not get along. After some initial stumbles, Mr. Giorno had become skilled at utilizing the public service when he worked as chief of staff for former Ontario premier Mike Harris.

"My experience was that he learned to appreciate what they brought to the table and learned to leverage," said Mr. Lyle, now a pollster who heads up Innovative Research Group.

A PMO official rejected the notion that the two men didn't get along. Any perceived tension was just an outgrowth of needed checks and balances that exist between the civil service and political offices.

"There is a challenge function that goes in both directions and that's how things get done, not just in this administration but in all administrations," Kory Teneycke said.

A staunch conservative, Mr. Giorno first became a lightning rod late last year after the introduction of the update that aimed to eliminate public voting subsidies for political parties. Different stories abound about who was responsible for the idea - some say Mr. Giorno tried to talk Mr. Harper out of it.

But the notion does seem like something Mr. Giorno would have approved of, said one friend who has known him since his days at Queen's Park.

The friend says that, like Mr. Harper, Mr. Giorno is a strong political tactician, extremely bright and principled. Sometimes, though, the tactics can obscure his appreciation of the bigger picture, the friend said.

Last month, for example, when the government leaked news that Mr. Mulroney was no longer a member of the Tory party, some Conservative MPs were livid. At one point, sources say, Mr. Giorno was taken to task by backbencher Lee Richardson, a former Mulroney staffer and loyalist.

But an MP who works closely with Mr. Giorno said those incidents are rare. Mr. Giorno, the MP said, is seized with the importance of ensuring that MPs deal with their constituents and treats backbenchers with respect.

"He always says if you can give good service to the members of Parliament, then they can give good service to their constituents."

Moreover, friends say he has learned to control what was once a famous temper, exhibited during the Harris years.

At weekly chiefs of staff meetings on Wednesday, he is described as cordial and professional.

"He's good at working a group," said one senior Tory of the chiefs' meetings. "It's a difficult position. The chiefs of staff want a little more information, a little more direction, and he can't often provide it."

But while he gets marks for the election win and surviving the winter, one senior Tory said Mr. Giorno's early tag as "can't miss" is no longer applicable.

"He's gone from being Sidney Crosby or Alex Ovechkin to a first-round draft choice that's done okay and who maybe hangs around for a while."

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