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Prime Minister Stephen Harper speaks to reporters in the foyer of the House of Commons on March 18, 2011. (Adrian Wyld/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Prime Minister Stephen Harper speaks to reporters in the foyer of the House of Commons on March 18, 2011. (Adrian Wyld/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Harper has reason to worry: Nanos poll Add to ...

A new poll suggests Stephen Harper has reason to worry as Parliament returns amid such tumult that the government could fall within days, forcing a spring election.

Trust in the Prime Minister's leadership has waned over the past month, amid charges that the Conservative government is in contempt of Parliament for hiding information; after party officials were charged with breaking the election law in 2006; and now with allegations emerging that Bruce Carson, a former confidant of Mr. Harper, sought to win contracts that benefited him and his much, much younger girlfriend.

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A poll conducted by Nanos Research for The Globe and Mail and CTV reveals a sharp drop in the past month in Mr. Harper's leadership index score - a compendium measuring Canadians' attitudes toward the trustworthiness, competence and vision of political leaders.

That score declined from 99 in February to its current level of 83, eliminating the gains in popularity that the Conservatives had purchased through a saturation campaign of negative advertising.

For pollster Nik Nanos, this is proof of the risk that attends fashioning an election campaign built solely around the party leader.

"It makes it much more difficult to compartmentalize matters when there's a controversy," he said Sunday. Just as Mr. Harper's leadership may be the biggest advantage the Conservatives have going into an election campaign, so too it may be their greatest weakness.

If the mud is starting to stick, this could be a bad week for the Conservatives. As Parliament resumes, expect Mr. Carson's name to dominate Question Period. How, if at all, did he profit from his past connections to the Prime Minister?

There will also be two parliamentary committee reports finding the government, in one case, and Minister of International Co-operation Bev Oda, in another, in contempt for Parliament for obstructing the work of parliamentary committees.

And there's the matter of the budget, with its corporate tax cuts that offend the opposition parties. Any of all of this could bring down the government.

On the other side, the House of Commons is expected Monday to debate the government's decision to deploy six CF-18 fighter jets to the Mediterranean, to assist the efforts to contain Libyan strongman Moammar Gadhafi.

Not only does this remind Canadians that parliamentary shenanigans are petty tempests in a time of uprisings and earthquakes, the deployment also allows Mr. Harper to act statesmanlike, while buttressing his controversial decision to replace the CF-18s with costly new F-35 fighters.

Unfortunately for the Liberals, Mr. Harper's declining leadership index score is not mirrored in gains for Michael Ignatieff, whose score inched up from 37 to 40. The real winner was NDP Leader Jack Layton, whose score leapt from 44 to 51.

That improvement was also reflected in increased support for the NDP in the West. Nationally, the popularity of the Conservative Party declined by a single percentage point, to 39 per cent, with both the Liberals (28 per cent) and NDP (20 per cent) up one point from the month before. These numbers are well within the margin of error (3 per cent) and suggest little or no change in support for the three national parties.

But in Western Canada, though the much larger margin of error warrants caution, the Conservatives are noticeably down and the NDP noticeably up.

While that means little in the Prairies, where support for the Conservatives declined from the astronomical to the merely stratospheric, the numbers in British Columbia, a crucial battleground, should give the Conservatives pause.

There, support for the Conservatives dropped from 45 per cent to 38 per cent, while support for the NDP shot up from 21 per cent to 30 per cent. The Liberal vote remained largely unchanged, at 24 per cent.

The question during the spring election campaign, if it does come, is whether the grime currently clinging to Mr. Harper from recent weeks will continue to undermine his popularity, or whether he can regain his leadership momentum, and a shot at a majority government.

Follow on Twitter: @JohnIbbitson

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