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Cracks appear in famed Conservative discipline

The walls of the Conservative fortress are crumbling.

For a decade, even when the going was tough, Stephen Harper's party maintained an impenetrability that kept most behind-the-scenes drama from spilling out into the open. The leaking of stories and the airing of grievances that would distract from their message – the constant carping and gossip that long plagued the conservative movement, and tore apart the Liberal Party – just was not tolerated.

The most remarkable thing about the trying stretch the Tories are currently enduring is that, midway through an election they still have a decent chance of winning, all that discipline is eroding – adding to the challenge of getting their campaign back on track.

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This week began with reports of unrest with campaign director Jenni Byrne, which morphed into news of her being moved from Mr. Harper's plane back to the campaign office, where many Tories were saying she should have been all along. That gave way to a report that Lynton Crosby – the controversial Australian political strategist who steered British Prime Minister David Cameron to re-election earlier this year – had been imported to try to turn things around. Along the way, CTV reported that a "top cabinet minister" was complaining about the party's handling of the Syrian refugee crisis, and MPs could be heard offering similar sentiments.

Those are just the stories that have been reportable. Among other things, the rumour mill has been churning with talk of strife between Ms. Byrne and Mr. Harper's chief of staff Ray Novak, who to this point has been seen as her ally and vice versa. Rumours are just that, but the point is that there seem to be rather a lot of Tories inclined to talk about other Tories and what they're allegedly doing wrong.

The easy explanation for all this is that the Tories are struggling in the polls, and have spent most of the campaign on the defensive. But it's not quite that simple.

Their campaigns have struggled before, and made changes, and the rest of us have been none the wiser. Unsatisfied with how things were going in 2011, Mr. Harper shook things up by having then-chief of staff Nigel Wright (who had been on the road with him) effectively take over his war room, and nobody in the outside world was aware others had effectively been demoted. It's not clear if Mr. Crosby actually has sidelined anyone, but some Tories were clearly happy to give that impression regardless.

What has changed is that, even before this campaign began, there were a lot of people in their party who in the past would have rallied around Mr. Harper, and who have since lost their incentive to be good soldiers.

Inevitably, when a party has been in government as long as the Tories, some rifts will develop. Turf battles will create bitterness, and some caucus members and staffers alike will be liberated by the knowledge that they'll never get promotions they want under current leadership. An old guard that got its start back in opposition days will look askance at relative newcomers seen to be more opportunistically drawn to power.

There are governing parties that do what they can to keep everyone in the tent, though. And for all their efforts to appear on the same page in public, the Tories don't seem to have done much to cultivate unity in private.

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Part of that can be traced to Ms. Byrne, who by many accounts has gone out of her way to put her stamp on the party and its operations by filling key positions with people she trusts at the expense of those she does not. A common sentiment is that she has declined to engage (if not actively driven away) people who were close to her predecessor as campaign director, the late Doug Finley. She is also known to have little interest in aspects of the campaign she considers overrated, including digital communications and even the target-riding program prominent in successful past campaigns, which no doubt alienates Conservatives interested in those areas.

But as much of a convenient lightning rod as Ms. Byrne might be – especially given recent problems in areas, such as candidate vetting, that are supposed to be her specialty – her boss bears his share of responsibility for any disgruntlement in his ranks.

Among Mr. Harper's less attractive qualities is his tendency to treat people as disposable once they have outlived their usefulness to him. That has been epitomized by the way he has thrown Mr. Wright under the bus for his role in the Mike Duffy scandal, which most recently involved comparing him – on the matter of people having responsibility for their actions – to Jian Ghomeshi, an accused serial abuser of women. Unfailingly loyal, Mr. Wright has displayed few signs of being offended by such comments. But they're quite the signal to other Tories about where being a team player gets you.

Whatever their motivation, there should be no minimizing of the number of Tories stirring the pot. Mr. Harper's officials have a tendency to attribute it to a small number of malcontents. They're wrong: It's a lot broader than that, and comes in significant part from people who are still involved.

There has long seemed a good chance that all sorts of tensions kept hidden would bubble over after Mr. Harper's time in office ended. It turns out a period of weakness was all it took for that to start. The Conservatives may yet hold onto government, but those walls will never go all the way up again.

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