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Jeffrey Simpson

Sure, there's a leadership death watch - but for which leader? Add to ...

The media, as is customary, have developed a one-dimensional narrative about Canadian politics around the travails of the Liberal Party, up to and including asking breathlessly if the party can be saved.

Everything is wrong in the Liberal world, especially its leader Michael Ignatieff, about whom barely a good word can be spoken. Internal disarray, policy incoherence, fundraising difficulties, Bob Rae envy. It's so bad for the Liberals that the absurdity of a merger with the NDP has been raised.

Assume for the sake of argument that this description is valid, that the Liberal Party is in complete chaos. Would it not logically follow, then, that if the Liberals are so down, the Conservatives should be so up? A parallel narrative, then, with the Official Opposition in terrible shape, should have Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his Conservatives safely in majority government territory.

Instead, the Conservatives are going nowhere. Just as the Liberals seem to be stuck at 27- to 30-per-cent in the polls (for whatever they are worth between elections, especially the unhelpful weekly polls the media seem to love), the Conservatives are caught between 31- and 35-per-cent, well shy of a majority.

The NDP, by the way, is in its usual 15- to 18-per-cent range. Should we not be wondering, if the Liberals are so weak, why the NDP is going nowhere either? The 13- to 18-per-cent range, after all, is where the NDP has been in almost every election since the party's founding in 1961. Between elections, the NDP sometimes goes above 18 per cent - as in May, 1987, when the party hit an astounding 39 per cent in one poll, only to tumble in the election the next year.

But back to the Conservatives. Under Mr. Harper, this Conservative Party is less popular than the previous iterations of the party during the past four decades. Joe Clark, for example, won the 1979 election with 36 per cent of the vote. Robert Stanfield usually had the Conservatives in the mid- to upper-30s. Brian Mulroney won 50 per cent of the vote in 1984 and was re-elected handsomely four years later.

The only time conservative forces were weaker than today came with the arrival in the 1993 election of the Reform Party (including Mr. Harper), a development that shattered the political right for more than a decade. Today, therefore, the Harper Conservatives are the weakest united right-wing government or party the country has seen in our lifetime.

The Bloc Québécois, of course, skews everything, taking about a 10-per-cent share of the national vote away from federalist parties. The Conservatives tried everything to woo Quebec, but their affections went unrequited to such an extent that the party has now all but given up on improving its standing there.

It doesn't seem to matter what the Conservatives do: They cannot win or get into majority government territory. They have spent money, before and since the recession, as no self-respecting right-wing party would ever have dared. They have tried to buy political favour (remember the GST cut, the tax credits for itsy-bitsy things, the "fiscal imbalance"), and backed that spending with enormous public advertising.

They have raised tens of millions of dollars to demonize their opponents and praise their own accomplishments. They jettisoned their own law on fixed election dates and called a premature election, thinking a majority government beckoned. They have controlled messages and gagged dissidents as no previous government has done. In short, they have enjoyed all the advantages of incumbency, avoided scandals (the Guergis/Jaffer business is more a joke than a scandal), yet have fallen short in three elections of a majority - and appear unable to win one the next time.

Which leads to another narrative about leadership: How many times will the Conservatives allow Stephen Harper to fail to win a majority government? If he only wins a minority next time, that would make four "victories" that could also be interpreted as failures - especially, as we keep hearing daily - against a hopeless, dispirited Liberal opposition.

Should we therefore not develop a parallel narrative to the Ignatieff death watch: the Harper death watch? Yes, he is secure for the moment, but his caucus fears, rather than loves him. It would not take more than a fourth failure to win a majority for him, or the party, to say this isn't working.

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