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gerald caplan

Between their cheers and their standing ovations, I wonder if Conservative stalwarts at their weekend convention in Calgary won't be just a teensy weensy bit anxious about the many awkward issues raised by the Senate expenses scandal. For example, is their leader telling the whole truth and nothing but? And is Stephen Harper really as brilliant as they were sure he was?

There is a veritable cornucopia of evidence – for those who care about such trifles – on all these matters. Here's a simple quiz:

Which one is true: When Mr. Harper said that no one in his office except Nigel Wright knew about the deal with Senator Mike Duffy, or when he now says "a few people" knew? (The number 13 is used by many.) Do you find it credible that his chief of staff, senior aides in his office, the party's chief fundraiser, the party's top lawyer, and several close allies in the Senate may have all hid from the Boss Man the money they were giving Mr. Duffy?

Which is true: when the Prime Minister announced he had accepted "with great regret" Mr. Wright's resignation for giving $90,000 to Mr. Duffy, or when he said this week that Mr. Wright had been dismissed for his "deception"? Had someone else fired Mr. Harper's chief of staff and informed him only days ago?

Arguably, this is a venerable pattern, going back many years. Examples can and do fill many websites, books and articles. To take only a tiny number of representative cases:

Was Mr. Harper telling the truth when he called then Liberal leader Stepháne Dion a terrorist sympathizer? When he repeatedly claimed the Liberals and NDP were proposing a coalition government with the separatist Bloc Québécois, which they were carefully not doing? Was he committed to the truth when members of his government, both in Parliament and out, regularly served up flagrant "truthiness," often as not following the script prepared by the Prime Minister's Office?

Is the Conservative base shaken even a little by these questions?

As anyone who's been there knows, the really interesting and important moments at a political convention happen in the halls and hospitality rooms. Sure, there'll be some fun on the floor as delegates try to emulate the Tea Party: knocking the bejeebers out of labour unions, trying to sneak in anti-abortion resolutions, skewering the CBC as nothing but a leftie conspiracy. But everyone knows that the only policies that matters are chosen by the Big Man. And the Big Man is exactly what all the whispering will be about.

Despite his failure to deliver satisfactorily on hot-button social issues, The Base has respected and admired Stephen Harper – even if they did not love him – because he's been canny enough to deliver three governments. But even partisans, as loyal as they normally are, aren't blind. Won't even the True Believers look around at the mess that threatens to engulf the entire government and begin to wonder?

Who's the genius that's gotten them into this mess? Look at what's crowding out all other national news:

The behaviour of three Conservative Senators appointed by the Prime Minister.

The future of the Senate, whose Conservative majority was delivered by the Prime Minister.

The question of which Conservative you believe, Mike Duffy, appointed by the Prime Minister, or the Prime Minister himself.

The PM's chief of staff, widely admired until this week, even during the Senate expenses scandal, now peremptorily and callously thrown to the wolves by the PM to save his own skin.

The stories peddled by the Prime Minister that change on a daily basis, stories that quite blatantly contradict each other.

The open ridicule that greets his statements in the House.

The PM's alliance with Toronto Mayor Rob Ford, including a formal photo-op only weeks ago and two-thirds-of-a-billion dollar gift for a subway that is mostly fantasy.

The sense that you can now invoke Richard Nixon and the Watergate cover-up without being scoffed at.

And who orchestrated this entire debacle? Whose strategy is the government and the party following? Who makes all the decisions? Who alone decides Conservative strategy? The erstwhile smartest man in the room.

The party now registers 30 per cent in the polls, having lost a full 25 per cent of the support that gave it a majority in 2011. We'll soon know if that's the absolute floor; it could possibly go lower. In any case, given the debacle triggered by the Gang of Three senators but with ramifications far beyond it, and with more damaging revelations likely still to come, it's not easy to see how they'll recover those lost supporters. The issue has become the credibility, the integrity, the trustworthiness of Stephen Harper. A new Nanos poll, just released, will give the faithful gathered in Calgary little cause for optimism on any front. As someone who's been there, done that, I hope they enjoy their big weekend.

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