So here’s how things have changed, an independently minded Conservative backbencher was saying. “We now have power. Real power.”
How so? Well, we have only a slim governing majority, he said (I’m paraphrasing him here). All it takes is for a group of about 10 of us to sit down with the Prime Minister and let him know what could happen. Tell him that we want changes in the way this place is run or we’re going to join Brent Rathgeber and sit as independents. You, sir, will be without your majority.
As the MP noted, there are more than enough Conservative dissidents to get the required number. Most, he said, are veterans who have their pensions locked up and don’t have much to lose in offending the powers that be.
Would the rebels go so far as to issue this kind of ultimatum? Don’t bet your banjo on it. But the fact that the idea is being discussed is noteworthy in itself. It shows that the days of Mr. Harper’s acting as if l’état, c’est moi are passing. To use Mr. Rathgeber’s words, backbenchers are no longer prepared to be treated like “trained seals.” They are emboldened and they have explosives at their disposal.
Low polling numbers always have the effect of draining a prime minister’s authority. Mr. Harper has been trailing since the onset of Justin Trudeau. The Senate scandal, touching on the Prime Minister’s Office, has also weakened his standing. A third factor has been overplaying his hand in preventing his MPs from having the right to deliver uncensored commentaries prior to Question Period. That prompted open dissent from the backbenchers. Mr. Rathgeber’s departure followed.
If history is any indication, backbench unrest is something Mr. Harper had better heed. It’s damaged the Conservatives in the past. John Diefenbaker and Joe Clark faced crippling caucus rebellions. In 2001, senior members of the Canadian Alliance party left the caucus to protest against Stockwell Day’s leadership. They forced his hand and they were glad they did – he resigned the leadership, opening the door to Stephen Harper to take over the party and lead it to success under the Conservative banner.
(Such displays have also been common on the Liberal side. Caucus members supporting Paul Martin forced Jean Chrétien to announce his retirement date. John Turner faced several insurgencies from his disgruntled caucus.)
In addition to his backbenchers, Mr. Harper must concern himself with the disgruntled social conservatives he has repeatedly stymied. There are also ambitious caucus types hoping to see a leadership convention before the next election; they won’t be going out of their way to quell backbench unrest.
But working in Mr. Harper’s favour is the fact that there is no popular heir apparent, no one caucus wants to rally around. Despite these difficulties, most Conservatives probably view Mr. Harper as their best electoral bet. Some report that the wagons have been circling since Mr. Rathgeber’s move.
Moreover, Mr. Harper has several opportunities to signal a change of approach. There is a Conservative convention at the end of this month, where he could pledge a democratization of the party. There’s the coming cabinet shuffle, in which he could do something surprising, such as bringing some of the rebels into the tent. There’s a likely Throne Speech in the fall.
The Prime Minister’s problem is that ethics is taking over from economics as the dominant issue in the public mind. That’s a trend he has to reverse; it’s poison. In the past, there has been pressure from beyond the party for him to change his modus operandi. It didn’t work. Maybe now, with the threat coming from within, he will respond.