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Tories need to refocus after political shocks of 2010

The morning of the vote, Lawrence Cannon arrived at the United Nations absolutely confident that Canada would win a temporary seat on the Security Council, according to someone who was close to the situation. His diplomats had assured him they had more than enough written and verbal commitments to win one of the two seats up for grabs.

When Canada came up short on the first round of voting, the Foreign Affairs Minister "was absolutely astounded," according to one source. So certain were the Canadians of victory in the first round, they lacked a strategy to build momentum in the second round. The delegation sat there, dumbfounded, as votes drained away.

For many Conservative supporters, the fiasco at the UN reflected the worrisome performance of the Harper government in 2010. A succession of political shocks left the Tories looking, at times, confused and adrift, leaving its own best friends to question what was going on in the Prime Minister's Office, and in his head.

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And they worry that the government prepares for what could be an imminent election without a meaningfully conservative agenda.

"If you were to ask any number of people either in government or outside government: What is the Conservative agenda in 2010? I think they'd be hard-pressed … to come up with an answer," Jim Armour believes. He was communications director for Mr. Harper when the Conservatives were in opposition.

Even some of the more senior figures in the government have at times agreed that the Conservatives often find themselves reacting to external events that are magnified by the absence of any countervailing message.

The question is whether Mr. Harper is willing or able to return to his conservative roots in 2011, or whether he will rely on disarray among the opposition to keep himself in office.

The biggest shock of all occurred a year ago Thursday

To compound matters, after a successful G8 and G20 summit that was marred by exorbitant costs and unruly protests, Mr. Harper disappeared. Contrary to conventional wisdom that the Prime Minister micromanages every aspect of government operations, Mr. Harper retreated to the summer residence at Harrington Lake and left the day-to-day running of the government to subordinates.

The result was chaos. In July, the decision to eliminate the mandatory long-form census came to light. At first, the internal conversation within the Industry Ministry and at the Langevin Bloc, headquarters of the Prime Minister's Office, concluded that the census issue was a minor irritant that would soon disappear. The mixed and conflicting messages that resulted forced the resignation of a deputy minister.

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The census imbroglio coincided with a dust-up over strife in the senior ranks of the RCMP. Then came the Security Council debacle. At the same time, the opposition parties united to oppose the Conservatives' decision to sole-source a $16-billion fighter contract. The communications line from the PMO - the planes were needed because Russian bombers were threatening Canadian airspace - was greeted with derision.

The alarms continued into the autumn, over everything from allegations of contract-fixing in the restoration program on Parliament Hill to unseemly snooping in the medical files of veterans who criticize the government. And let's not even mention Omar Khadr. Though Mr. Harper was back on the job, he was often overseas, attending meetings of La Francophonie, APEC, the G20 and NATO.

Instead of projecting an agenda and controlling events, a rudderless government grappled with one flare-up after another, from mixed signals over whether BHP Billiton Ltd. would be allowed to take over Potash Corp. to a cabinet squabble over landing rights for the United Arab Emirates airline.

"Everything seems to be reactive," Tom Flanagan, a former senior advisor and campaign manager for Mr. Harper, believes. "We get a boatload full of Tamils, so we get human-smuggling legislation."

That's what happens, he says, "if you don't have an agenda."

Figures within the senior ranks of the administration insist that the shocks were minor affairs that only temporarily distracted from the fact that on the one thing that matters - bringing the country safely out of the recession - the government is getting the job done.

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And the Tories' shaky reputation for competence firmed up as temperatures dropped below freezing. Industry Minster Tony Clement ultimately vetoed the Potash Corp. takeover, with Mr. Harper's concurrence, avoiding a political civil war with the Saskatchewan government.

Mr. Harper himself took the lead in announcing the switch from combat to training in the Afghan mission. And he brought Bay Street executive Nigel Wright in as chief of staff, a tacit acknowledgement of the need for more discipline in his own office.

Through December, the government's popularity steadily increased, even as Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff struggled to create a more favourable second impression with voters.

For Conservatives both inside and outside the government, the key priority now must be restraining spending and balancing the federal budget.

It won't be easy. Previous efforts by the Harper government to target program spending have failed to slow government growth. Government spending even before the stimulus program increased well beyond the rate of inflation. But the government must bring spending under control, its supporters maintain, and the February or March budget will be crucial for delivering that agenda. It could well serve as an election manifesto if the opposition brings the government down over it.

Critics maintain that the lack of a clear agenda signals that the Harper government is old, tired and ripe for defeat. Mr. Flanagan disagrees.

"They should be entering their best years," he believes. With nearly four years of experience in governing, Mr. Harper should be at the top of his game.

"This is a government that is entering its maturity," he says. "It just needs to focus its energies."

Of course, Mr. Ignatieff's Liberals may yet offer an agenda that is more coherent and compelling for more Canadians than anything the Conservatives may come up with.

But Mr. Armour offers this parting caveat: "I'd never bet against Stephen Harper."

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About the Author

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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