The campaign director, accused by others at her party’s highest level of being unprepared and lacking personal discipline, had been marginalized. The communications director was being all but physically barred from the leader he was supposed to be serving, because of suspicions he didn’t have that leader’s best interests in mind. People with limited campaign experience were lashing out because they had been set up to fail in senior roles for which they were unprepared. Nobody was firmly in charge.
Such was the situation inside the legendarily disciplined party that had governed Canada for the past decade, by the end of the 78-day race that brought an end to its reign.
Some of those at least nominally in charge have argued in recent days that the Conservatives did as well in Monday’s vote as they could reasonably be expected to do – that in Mr. Harper’s fifth election at the helm, voters just didn’t want any more of him, and the party’s support basically stayed consistent through the entire writ. Others contend the Conservatives had a real shot at winning, if the campaign had been better run.
Conversations with those who were on the inside of the Conservative efforts, mostly willing to offer details only on a not-for-attribution basis, point to a level of dysfunction that helps explain why their party seemed to spend much of the campaign spinning its wheels – lacking a coherent plan to connect with swing voters, having difficulty getting the public focus onto its preferred messages and by some accounts suffering from a lacklustre ground game.
The warning signs were there even before the campaign officially began.
The campaign director, Jenni Byrne – who did not respond to a request for comment – had served the same role when the Conservatives won majority government, in 2011. But this time, in part because she had won a series of turf battles against others who had played senior roles previously, she had considerably more control over the preparations.
In early summer, a group of senior Conservatives decided those preparations were not up to snuff and – seemingly with Mr. Harper’s blessing – tried to get high-profile Australian political strategist Lynton Crosby to step in. Mr. Crosby declined to do so, on the basis he was not interested in stepping in so late in the game, so Ms. Byrne for a time remained firmly in charge. But the concerns that precipitated the overture to the Australian only got louder after the writ dropped at the start of August.
Many of them centred around her personnel decisions. Long a polarizing figure in her party, she was seen to have isolated experienced people who might challenge her, and to have put underqualified loyalists in key positions. Among the more extreme examples was that a preparation session for the first leaders’ debate was conducted by her brother-in-law – a former mid-level staffer who, later in the campaign, was found to have breached federal lobbying rules.
“She cut out or marginalized former members of ‘Harper’s team,’ from past elections, across every conservative faction,” a veteran party organizer who was working in headquarters complained in an internal party memo obtained by The Globe and Mail. “In their place, we received a swarm of Jenni’s family members, inexperienced and apolitical personal friends, and Sun News castoffs.”
A second, more surprising area of concern was Ms. Byrne’s own level of engagement. In the past she had proved herself a hard-driving task-master, adept at putting out fires and at making sure organization and planning were where they needed to be. Fairly or not, there were accusations that this time she was not doing the work.
From the riding level, there were complaints as basic as the party not having the campaign literature and other materials ready when it should be. Training for staff and volunteers around the country seemed to have fallen short. A run of bizarre candidate controversies suggested that vetting, normally one of Ms. Byrne’s specialties, had been haphazard at best. The same memo that complained about her hiring practices also alleged she created a process that required her sign-off on an inordinate number of decisions, and was then late and secretive in making them – leading to problems with the party’s advertising buys, among other areas.
And while she and her staff hardly had primary responsibility for the three-headed monster – the Mike Duffy trial, the troubled economy and the Syrian refugee crisis – that had the Conservatives badly off-track for the campaign’s first month, there was also little visible messaging plan to get beyond it.
In early September, Ms. Byrne joined the leader’s tour. It was an unusual move for someone in her position, who would normally stay in headquarters, and before long she was accused of being there more for an escape than to help run things. She was sent back to Ottawa – and matters came to a head.
There were reports of Mr. Crosby being brought in to turn things around, but in fact he only offered a bit of advice from afar, never setting foot on Canadian soil. The real change, unreported at the time, was that Ms. Byrne was essentially stripped of sole authority for the campaign’s operational decisions. From that point on, she would have to share it with campaign chair Guy Giorno and Ray Novak, Mr. Harper’s chief-of-staff.
“Her name wasn’t taken off the org chart,” explained one senior Conservative. “But additional layers for approval were put in place.”
By some accounts, the campaign’s functions moderately improved for a time thereafter, partly because Ms. Byrne became more focused on the on-the-ground organization that is usually one of her strengths. But it ultimately appears to have created even more turmoil.
Neither Mr. Novak nor Mr. Giorno, the latter of whom was still working his day job at the law firm Fasken Martineau, took full control. Meanwhile, Ms. Byrne appeared to resent the way she was being treated by Mr. Harper. She gradually withdrew from many of the campaign’s functions, and by the final weeks was not participating in the daily calls between headquarters and the leader’s tour. Some of the officials under her watch seemed to follow her lead, with communication between different departments breaking down.
Rarely was the disconnect clearer than on the day of the campaign’s final debate, in early October, when the Conservative war room trotted out a pair of ministers to pledge a tip line for reporting “barbaric cultural practices.” Mr. Harper knew his party had that policy in reserve, but neither he nor the staff with him in Montreal knew it was being rolled out at a time the Tories were already being accused of fomenting fear against immigrant groups. Not that the tour team was without its own drama by then, courtesy of deep suspicion of Kory Teneycke, the former Sun Media executive – and close ally of Ms. Byrne’s – serving as communications director.
Since early in the campaign, Mr. Teneycke – who declined to comment for this article – had been suspected of being too “loose” with media. At a minimum, that included some ill-advised attempts at being clever, most memorably by saying that Justin Trudeau would win the first leaders’ debate if he remembered to put his pants on first. (He was trying to flag low expectations, but just wound up lowering them further.) Correctly or not, fellow tour staff also believed he was behind several unhelpful leaks to reporters.
Somewhat ironically, given Mr. Teneycke’s many public battles with what he once termed the “lamestream media,” pushing Mr. Harper to do lots of interviews was seemingly the final straw. Against the advice of other staff, he convinced his boss to do an Oct. 5 hit with Rosemary Barton on CBC. Ostensibly there to talk about the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, Mr. Harper instead made headlines for repeating something he had said in French previously, about considering a niqab ban for government workers – sabotaging his party’s efforts to pivot away from hot-button issues and focus on the economy for the campaign’s final two weeks.
After that, colleagues went out of their way to prevent Mr. Teneycke from talking to Mr. Harper. Others believe that, possibly positioning himself for future career moves, Mr. Teneycke did not always have Mr. Harper’s best interests in mind.
To some Tories, this seems gratuitous scapegoating. Dennis Matthews, another former Sun employee who was in charge of Conservative advertising this campaign, describes Mr. Teneycke as a “swing-for-the-fences communicator” who “brought much-needed high-level media relations capacity to the team.”
But in the campaign’s final days, as it became increasingly clear that defeat was inescapable, the finger-pointing was epidemic.
Back at headquarters, at least a couple of the officials who had been appointed by Ms. Byrne followed her lead, more or less checking out. Others didn’t know to whom they were supposed to be answering. The Conservative machine in which they thought they would be well-supported cogs had broken down. In the halls of the Conservative offices, in restaurants and bars nearby, something shocking was happening: People who were supposed to be playing senior roles in getting Mr. Harper one last term could be heard loudly speaking ill of him.
The frustration wasn’t just about Mr. Harper, though. It was about the wrong people being in the wrong place at the wrong time. And about the housecleaning that will need to happen, as the Conservative Party moves on from the only leader it has ever known.Report Typo/Error