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Conservative backbencher Michael Chong has introduced a bill that would curb party leaders’ powers. Some of his parliamentary colleagues are anticipating a free vote in the House of Commons.

Dave Chan/The Globe and Mail

Politics Insider delivers premium analysis and access to Canada's policymakers and politicians. Visit the Politics Insider homepage for insight available only to subscribers.

Some Conservative Members of Parliament say they anticipate Prime Minister Stephen Harper will allow a free vote on a backbencher's bill to claw back the power of Canadian party leaders in the House of Commons.

Doing so could free up dozens of Conservatives to support the bill tabled by Ontario backbencher Michael Chong, raising the prospect of it passing even without the support of Mr. Harper, who revealed in one recent interview he has no "strong opinion" on the bill.

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The Prime Minister and his cabinet have been cool to Bill C-559, known as the Reform Act, and stayed quiet on whether it will – as is typically customary for private member's bills – be given a free vote, in which MPs aren't ordered to vote a certain way.

However, three factors are now expected by some to lead to a free vote – the attention the bill has received, the expectation that such votes are typically free and the support it already has in caucus. Those factors are, altogether, expected to make it politically impossible for Mr. Harper to oppose a free vote for backbenchers, according to some Conservative MPs who spoke on condition of anonymity.

One supporter of Mr. Chong's bill privately speculated it already has around 20 or so supporters among backbenchers in the Conservative caucus, while another said it had three dozen.

The NDP will allow a free vote, and Leader Thomas Mulcair has expressed support for the bill. If many of the 100 NDP MPs join a few dozen government backbenchers and both Green Party MPs in backing the bill, it could be up to the Liberals or the Conservative cabinet to decide its fate.

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau has said his party will have a "truly free vote" on the bill, but hasn't signalled how he'll vote and has expressed doubts about parts of the bill. In a year-end interview with Global News, Mr. Harper said he hasn't studied Mr. Chong's bill "in great detail" and has not "formed a strong opinion on any of these particular proposals."

Voting on the Reform Act remains a long way off – formal debate hasn't even begun on it, and it could still be amended before passing, something Mr. Chong has said he is open to.

Only a handful of Conservative MPs have publicly supported the bill, and Mr. Chong, in an interview, declined to speculate on how many backbenchers will support him and whether it will be a free vote.

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"I hope there's a vigorous debate about the proposals in the bill," he said. "These are simple but fundamental changes to the way our system functions. I think they're important changes to strengthen the abilities of our elected representatives to give voice to their constituencies in Ottawa."

The bill would give MPs more powers and party leaders – including Mr. Harper, Mr. Mulcair and Mr. Trudeau – fewer powers. It would be up to MPs to decide who was kicked out of and let into caucus; MPs would be able to trigger a leadership review with 15-per-cent support, and toss out a leader altogether with a majority vote. In both cases, Mr. Chong says his bill will codify existing unwritten convention.

The 15-per-cent figure means, currently, that 25 Conservative MPs could trigger a leadership review (although the bill wouldn't take effect until next year). For the Liberals, just six MPs would be required to trigger a review of Mr. Trudeau's leadership status, based on the party's current number of MPs. Some MPs have said that the 15-per-cent figure is too low, suggesting the bill may gain support by raising the threshold.

A third overhaul proposed in the Reform Act would strip party leaders of their requirement to sign off on nomination papers, a move meant to divest power from the leader and give it to grassroots party supporters through local electoral associations. MPs currently face the threat, although hardly ever exercised, of a party leader refusing their candidacy.

Josh Wingrove is a parliamentary reporter in Ottawa.

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