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Stephen Harper issued a letter to caucus just as the Liberals were winding up their highly successful weekend convention, reminding his MPs that he considers the economy the issue that matters above all. Crime, Senate reform, defence procurement--these are all important, but the economy comes first. Crime, Senate reform, defence procurement – these are all important, but the economy comes first.

Fair or not, most Canadians trust the Conservatives to mind the store more than they do the opposition. Liberals may fume that it was Paul Martin and Jean Chrétien who slew the deficit and protected the banks from themselves; the NDP may complain that this government ignores working families. (By the way, what is a non-working family?) It is for naught. Every poll suggests that for the last six years, the Harper government has owned the economy as an issue. And the economy is what matters to taxpayers most. That is why neither the NDP nor the Liberals are likely to prevail unless and until one of three things happens.

First, the economy might start to matter less. The amount that people can worry is finite. When they're no longer worried about their job or their mortgage, they start worrying about other things, like health care or the environment. If concern starts to rise over global warming, that's a sure sign the economy is turning the corner. Unfortunately, a return to robust growth doesn't appear likely anytime soon.

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Second, either the Liberals or the NDP might take the economy as an issue away from the Conservatives, either by convincing voters they are more competent, or by offering a compelling alternative to the Tory mantra of increased trade, low taxes and spending restraint. The opposition parties are convinced this is their best option. But it will be no easy feat to tarnish the Tory brand.

Third, the Conservatives might do something really, really stupid. Every government does, eventually. The scandals and alarms that critics have sounded in the past – mishandling Afghan detainees, proroguing Parliament, generally running a closed and autocratic government – just don't seem to count that much with voters. But the Tories have been in power six years. Sooner or later, something is going to stick. Then people might start looking for alternatives to a government they've grown impatient with.

Until then, Mr. Harper will happily let the Liberals and NDP fight over who is the environmental party, who is the party of social justice, who cares more about children and students and seniors.

The Tories only want to be known as the party that minds the store.



Follow John Ibbitson on Facebook and Twitter @JohnIbbitson

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