The Stephen Harper years are over.
Either his Conservative Party will win a small plurality of parliamentary seats in Monday's election, but then be defeated in the House of Commons, or his party will win fewer seats than the Liberals and hand over power. Either way, time will soon be up for the Prime Minister.
In defeat, Mr. Harper could theoretically stay on. But he has already been leader of the Opposition. After nine years as prime minister, who would want that job again?
Even if Mr. Harper wanted to stay, he has few friends in the party. Former prime minister Brian Mulroney had legions of supporters in the parliamentary caucus and party at large who would lie on broken glass for him. Mr. Harper has almost none.
Mr. Harper, far more than anyone else, created this Conservative Party. He shaped, organized, galvanized and directed it. It could rightly be, therefore, called the Harper Party. Where does the Harper Party go without Harper?
Maybe – and who can be certain? – the leader of the Harper Party had trouble imagining anyone else at the helm. He, therefore, spit into the political winds by trying to win again after nine bruising years in power. Hubris, after all, has walked many a leader to the political grave.
Once it became clear that Mr. Harper would fight on, possible successors went their separate ways: Jim Prentice to Alberta politics, Peter MacKay and John Baird to the private sector. No one of comparable stature took their place; no candidate of leadership potential was recruited in this election. The party's already shrivelled talent bank was never weaker than in this campaign.
Which means that when the party thinks, as it perforce must, about the Harper Party post-Harper, it will be obvious that Defence Minister Jason Kenney has spent years preparing himself to win the leadership and is the obvious front-runner. But as time goes on, many Conservatives will ask: Do we want a social conservative from Calgary as leader?
More fundamentally, Conservatives will or should ask: Do we want something like the Harper Party to take us into the future, or do we want something broader, more akin to the old Progressive Conservatives, a party that at least gives greater space and comfort to more moderate conservatives?
For now, the answer to that fundamental question would be that the Harper Party without Harper would carry on much as before, but perhaps with a gentler style of leadership.
Moderate Conservatives for some years now have been like the lost tribes of Israel: inspired by an idea but wandering, lost in the wilderness, waiting for a messiah. They have been so marginalized that their influence is nil, their active membership in the party risible, their private gripes standing in inverse relationship to their share of power. They dream of recovering lost influence, but it is only a dream.
Conservatism, if we can call it an "ism," has shifted rightward in Ontario, in Alberta, in the federal Conservative Party and most obviously in the United States. The shift has been proceeding apace for so long that it is difficult to see how it can be reversed.
Loss of power, however, can have a way of forcing serious debates on the losing party. Those debates will start, privately at first and then in public, as the Conservative Party considers its uncertain future, sans Stephen Harper.
He will be gone, having left a forceful legacy on his party and the country. A Canadian political party will continue in his wake, representing a coalition of people who think of themselves as conservatives because of how they view the role of the state, the obligations of citizens, the role of religion, the sense of the country's past and the place of Canada in the world.
The Harper Party made many philosophical judgments that were aberrant to true conservative thinking. It forgot that the job of a conservative is to "conserve," which means the physical heritage of the environment. It neglected to think of society as an organic whole and played wedge politics where politically useful.
It forgot a conservative credo that power should be exercised with caution and checked where necessary, and instead concentrated power in one man's hands as never before, seeing enemies everywhere, butting heads with the courts and officers of Parliament, and focusing on the party "base" rather than on society as a whole.