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In Tories’ hour of need, PM must go his own way

At one of the most difficult moments since he became Prime Minister, Stephen Harper is alone.

He must rejuvenate a listless governing agenda while dousing a major political fire. He must rebuild his cabinet and craft what may be the most closely scrutinized Throne Speech in the government's history. He must get everything right, or risk defeat at the next election. And he must do it without the help of his trusted chief of staff, Nigel Wright, whose resignation is a body blow to the Harper government.

The Prime Minister's first post-Wright challenge comes Tuesday when he meets caucus. The men and women inside that room – and Conservative supporters outside it – will need to be convinced that questions and allegations surrounding Mr. Wright's decision to use his own money to pay off Senator Mike Duffy's expenses are just so much noise.

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The political class in Ottawa will declare the Senate expenses scandal the worst this government has ever faced, just as the robocalls scandal was before it, and Bev Oda's alleged contempt of Parliament was before that, and the Helena Guergis scandal was before that.

Mr. Harper generally prefers to let these conflagrations burn themselves out, which they eventually do. But because this controversy extends into his own office, and involves questions of his own knowledge of what was going on inside that office, he will have to be very careful in how he handles this file.

Some kind of independent look at events – even if that study is well short of a public inquiry – may be warranted.

It's important to remember that most voters don't pay a great deal of attention to these political tempests.

But they do pay attention if they begin to suspect the government is no longer running things properly.

That is the real problem here: the growing perception that the Conservatives can't think of anything particularly interesting or important to do.

Trade deals aren't getting signed; pipelines aren't getting approved; Finance Minister Jim Flaherty's last budget was ho-hum. There is little law and order left to impose.

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Scandals such as Senate expenses are often a symptom as much as anything else. They fill the political vacuum generated by a government without much of an agenda.

That is why, if and when he is able to weather this particular tempest, Mr. Harper will need to focus on the much-vaunted "reset:" the cabinet shuffle that will come after the House rises at the end of June, and the Throne Speech that will follow in September.

Each must reinforce the notion that the government knows what it wants to do in the two remaining years of its mandate and has a road map for doing it.

In plotting such road maps, Mr. Wright brought a cool head, a strong grasp of economic fundamentals and Bay Street street smarts.

His replacement, Ray Novak, has been a good and loyal servant since the days when Mr. Harper was leader of the Canadian Alliance. He knows his boss's mind and the word on him is that any file he handles is handled well.

But is he the man to advise the Prime Minister on which cabinet minister should be shuffled where? Can he offer a solid opinion on whether the final terms of the proposed Canada-European Union trade agreement are in Canada's interest, or whether Mr. Harper should walk away from the deal?

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What three priorities should the government devote its energies to between this autumn and the 2015 election? How can the government ensure it delivers on those priorities?

You can see why this is entirely the wrong time for Mr. Harper to be bringing on board a new chief of staff.

The Prime Minister has always seen himself as the most capable member of his administration. He will have to be. Right now, there are few if any people he can turn to as he tries to put this troubled government back on track.

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About the Author
Writer-at-large

John Ibbitson started at The Globe in 1999 and has been Queen's Park columnist and Ottawa political affairs correspondent.Most recently, he was a correspondent and columnist in Washington, where he wrote Open and Shut: Why America has Barack Obama and Canada has Stephen Harper. He returned to Ottawa as bureau chief in 2009. More

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