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Prime Minister Stephen Harper speaks to business leaders in New York this week: The message was, the Keystone XL pipeline would be a less risky way to transport heavy crude to the U.S. East Coast.ADRIAN WYLD/The Canadian Press

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The Senate expenses scandal is potentially a bigger problem for Stephen Harper than his near defeat at the hands of a Liberal-led coalition in 2008 because this time he has angered not his enemies, but his friends.

The good news for the Conservatives is that the damage can be reversed, if Mr. Harper says and does the right things, starting at Tuesday's caucus meeting.

For in the end, it's much easier to seek forgiveness from your friends than from your enemies.

Conservative MPs are not hesitating to tell reporters of the outrage they are hearing from constituents over news that Nigel Wright, former chief of staff to the Prime Minister, paid off Senator Mike Duffy's dodgy travel and living expenses with his own money and didn't tell anyone.

After all, the Reform Party was born of Western anger – an anger that spread nationwide – at unaccountable elites who governed Ottawa in secrecy and with a long-entrenched sense of privilege.

The great damage of this scandal is that it makes it appear the Conservatives are beginning to resemble what it was they came to Ottawa to replace. This is how a political party loses power by eroding its base.

As The Globe's Steven Chase and Daniel Leblanc report, Mr. Harper will tell the caucus Tuesday that the government supports stricter accounting of senators' expenses, and is committed to electing senators to fixed terms, subject to a Supreme Court reference. That's a start, but it may not be enough. The Conservative back bench has been progressively marginalized over the past seven years, culminating in a revolt over the PM's refusal to permit any discussion in the House around abortion issues.

Now the Prime Minister's Office has acted so egregiously that even the Tory shires are up in arms, which strengthens the hands of the MPs who speak for those shires. A weakened PMO will have to work with a restive caucus to re-establish cohesion – an essential, but not sufficient, condition for recovery.

To secure his long-term future, Mr. Harper must then take control of the political conversation. That means making economic growth the issue, not backroom deals. It means bringing Conservative guns to bear on NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair and Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, rather than on their own feet.

And it means starting the 2015 election campaign right here, right now.

Canadians like to make fun of the two-year presidential election cycle that effectively begins the day after the mid-term elections.

But Canadians could be about to witness the same thing. The NDP and the Liberals will use the Senate expenses scandal to frame an election narrative based on trust in government and time for a change. (Which, if you remember, was the Conservative narrative in 2004 and 2006.)

Mr. Harper, who is never happier than when he is campaigning, will want the ballot question to be on the economy and which leader can be trusted to manage it. (Which, if you remember, was what he ran on in 2008 and 2011.)

In that sense, Tuesday's caucus meeting is a vital prologue to the campaign to come, which will launch with the upcoming cabinet shuffle and a throne speech that will be an election platform by another name.

The Tory campaign will accelerate with party (and government) advertising, financial appeals to the base (assuming the base is still listening) and unrelenting attacks on the leadership qualifications of the opposition.

The campaign will carry on, pretty much without ceasing, until May 2015, when the next election is likely to be held. It won't be pretty, but it has worked for the Tories in the past, it worked in B.C. last week and the Conservatives will count on it working again.

If the Senate scandal fades, that will advantage Mr. Harper as the campaign begins. If it deepens and entrenches, then the opposition will have the upper hand.

Either way, expect everything short of lawn signs for the next two years – assuming, that is, Mr. Harper can win back his caucus and his base. If he can't do that, well, who knows how this ends.

John Ibbitson is the chief political writer in the Ottawa bureau.