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The incredible shrinking Tory tent (Dynamic Graphics/(c) Dynamic Graphics)
The incredible shrinking Tory tent (Dynamic Graphics/(c) Dynamic Graphics)

Lawrence Martin

The incredible shrinking Tory tent Add to ...

Stephen Harper's stewardship can be divided into two halves - the first being the calm, the second the storm.

The first period, from 2006 to the middle of 2008 when Ian Brodie served as the Prime Minister's chief of staff, saw a less bull-headed approach. Coming out of the conservative hardlands, Mr. Harper didn't want to start off with guns blazing. He brought forward five unprovocative policy priorities.

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In 2008, Guy Giorno, a visceral hard-liner and social conservative from Mike Harris's Ontario regime, took over as the PM's right-hand man. It was a strange hire. Mr. Harper was already being criticized as a control freak. In bringing in Mr. Giorno, whose way of relaxing is to slip into a straitjacket, the PM was tightening the bolts even more. The changeover may come to be seen as the turning point in Mr. Harper's governance, the moment when the die was cast, when the chance of these Conservatives ever becoming a big tent party ended.

With Mr. Giorno came a-house cleaning. Out went the moderates. In came the true believers. Among those who departed were top policy adviser Bruce Carson, a veteran Tory of no fixed ideological address, and Keith Beardsley, who had worked for Joe Clark and Jean Charest. They were older, experienced men, both prepared to challenge Hr. Harper when they thought he was overreaching.

Kevin Lynch, the clerk of the Privy Council, soon left as well. Mr. Giorno thought he wielded too much power and cut off his access to the PM to the point where Mr. Lynch couldn't function as he wished. Now Double G, as Mr. Giorno was sometimes called, had even more power. During this period, the Harper team also lost the overarching wisdom of long-time adviser Tom Flanagan.

Mr. Harper's office became his very own echo chamber, his instincts unchecked. In the Brodie PMO, the operation was often hard-headed enough. It introduced one of the most widespread vetting and censorship operations the capital had ever seen. But it kept the lid on. Under Mr. Giorno, ideology-spurred controversies and convulsions soon became commonplace. In the 2008 election campaign came Mr. Harper's costly denunciation of gala-goers. His inclination for aggression showed up with the budget update fiasco that nearly brought down his government.

After the first prorogation that followed it, the government had little choice but to veer left and open the spending taps to address the recession. But soon it returned to its ideological moorings. Law and order measures intensified with the announcement of a major jail-building program. The Harper office then handled the Afghan detainees affair with all the subtlety of a 1950s Latin American military dictatorship, cutting short an inquiry, attacking diplomat Richard Colvin, defying the House of Commons its right to see documents (until ordered by the Speaker to do so) and shutting down Parliament in an attempt to avoid more clamour. Mr. Harper himself was not keen on this second padlocking of Parliament but was persuaded to go that route by advisers.

This year gave him a splendid opportunity to reset the character of the government. The country was rebounding nicely from the recession. There was the glory of the Vancouver Olympics, the hosting of the G8 and G20 summits and the royal visit. The PM performed ably through them all, but again fell victim to ideological overdrive and base-pandering.

In addition to several other control-freak eruptions, social conservatism came to the fore with abortion funding left out of the maternal health initiative, funding cuts for Toronto's Gay Pride day, a planned employment equity review and, most important, the decision on ending the long-form census.

The upshot has been no change in the government's image and zero improvement in its popularity numbers. Unable to score through these times, Tories must be wondering whether they can ever score.

When he became PM, Mr. Harper wanted to gradually enlarge the Conservative tent. That required his having a team that could curb his raw appetites and fashion an appeal to the mainstream. He had people like that initially. But then the yes chorus came, the ideological shackles tightened, and the tent got smaller.

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