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The Globe and Mail

Harper has free hand in shuffle but cards he deals speak volumes

Prime Minister Stephen Harper watches as Chuck Strahl is sworn in as Transport Minister at Rideau Hall on Aug. 6, 2010.


After this much time in office, most prime ministers might be facing some delicate internal pressures when choosing a new cabinet. For Prime Minister Stephen Harper, not so much.

Despite the fact a great deal of power has for decades been concentrated in the Langevin Block, it's still common for there to be a half dozen or so ministers that enjoy considerable profile, significant political constituencies, and consequently some leverage when it comes to angling for the plum cabinet assignments.

However, as Mr. Harper surveys his options, other than the dictates of regional representation he will have a pretty free hand to make the choices he feels will serve his needs best. Probably the only change he couldn't make without risking backlash would be to move Finance Minister Jim Flaherty to another post.

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This is not to suggest that Mr. Harper's ministers haven't earned respect for their work. Many have, and will undoubtedly be given roles commensurate with their talents. But if part of the delicate art of cabinet making in the past is accommodating key sources of power within the party or caucus, avoiding uncomfortable departures, rival leadership factions, or limiting back-corridor back biting, Mr. Harper has to spend almost no time thinking about these pressures.

There are several reasons for this. First of all, the departure by retirement or defeat of several highly experienced and respected ministers has created a pretty healthy number of openings for new people to come in, and for mid-rank ministers to see promotion opportunities.

Second, the disengagement of the public from politics over recent years means that very few ministers enjoy the kind of coverage and visibility they used to. Leverage in cabinet requires a measure of public popularity. Being a darling of the news media doesn't hurt either. Regional "favourite sons" used to be an important part of the political discourse, as did powerful regional lieutenants, but neither concept enjoys anywhere near the currency they once did.

But the most important reason Mr. Harper has latitude is that the successful Conservative election campaign was pretty much about Stephen Harper. Advertising was about the leader, the tour was about the leader, if things had gone badly it would have been his loss to wear. As it turns out, his already powerful grip on his party and government is stronger still.

Just because he doesn't feel much internal pressure doesn't mean the PM will make no effort to alter his line up. The election result was a strong one in the end, but the campaign was no walk in the park for Conservatives. Many voters felt tempted to "send a message" to the government, and the Prime Minister will not have missed that signal. This is his opportunity to continue the process he seemed determined to start on election night, of signalling that his government will govern with a longer-term view, and will dial down partisanship. His new cabinet will be the first big "tell" of the new Harper government, a government free to plan its future without the risk of imminent defeat in the Commons. His choices will reveal plenty about the nature and the scope of his ambitions for the future of his party, his government, and himself personally.

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