Stephen Harper hasn’t personally jumped into the Conservative leadership race’s public stage, but there is a Harper who has emerged to pick sides: Ben Harper, son of the former prime minister.
The younger Mr. Harper’s tweets appear to put him all-in for Pierre Poilievre – and dead against former Quebec premier Jean Charest.
And the tone of the tweets, or at least a couple of the latest ones, fit the elbows-up, pointed tenor of a campaign that has been nasty from the get-go.
Ben Harper responded to a tweet from Mr. Charest – itself a hard-edged criticism of Mr. Poilievre for supporting the trucker convoy and attacking the integrity of the Bank of Canada – with a dismissive shot of his own.
“A losing campaign: repeating Liberal Party and media lies to attack Conservatives and dismiss the issues ordinary Canadians care about,” he tweeted Monday. “A sad attempt to save a failing campaign.”
It’s not clear if the younger Mr. Harper is expressing views in simpatico with those of his dad – Ben Harper has his own interest in politics and went to work in Jason Kenney’s Alberta government.
“Ben always had a mind of his own,” Mr. Harper’s former communications director, Dimitri Soudas, said Tuesday.
But the retweets from Mr. Poilievre’s team suggest they are happy for Conservatives to hear the pro-Poilievre, anti-Charest views of a Harper family member.
And there is definitely a bit of an old Harper-Charest grudge coming through in the race – at least by extension.
A day earlier, Mr. Poilievre’s key campaign adviser and Mr. Harper’s former campaign manager Jenni Byrne had been in a slanging match with Mr. Charest’s campaign co-chair Tasha Kheiriddin on CTV’s Power Play when Ms. Byrne brought up the grudge with Mr. Charest.
The discussion was already pointed. Ms. Kheiriddin was expounding on Mr. Charest’s assertions that Mr. Poilievre has disqualified himself from political leadership because he supported trucker convoy protests that broke the law. Ms. Byrne accused both Mr. Charest and Ms. Kheiriddin of being newcomers to the “modern Conservative Party,” and, at one point, said Ms. Kheiriddin was lying.
Then Ms. Byrne raised the old complaint: that Mr. Charest had “campaigned” against Mr. Harper’s Conservatives.
That’s not quite true. There was no actual campaigning – but there was an election-campaign squabble in 2008 that left bad blood.
The two politicians initially got along well when Mr. Harper was first elected as prime minister in 2006, Mr. Soudas said. But Mr. Harper felt he helped Mr. Charest get re-elected as premier in 2007, and a year later, when Mr. Harper was seeking a majority, Mr. Charest was publicly critical of the prime minister.
“That’s where the marriage fell apart,” Mr. Soudas said.
Even before Mr. Harper came to power, Mr. Charest had called for Ottawa to address the “fiscal imbalance” – claiming Ottawa had the revenues but provinces had the costs for needs such as education and health.
In 2007, when Mr. Charest was facing a tough re-election fight, Mr. Harper’s government tabled a budget that provided a windfall to provinces, especially Quebec, and declared the fiscal imbalance solved. It was supposed to be Ottawa ceding money for Quebec to use on social spending, but Mr. Charest quickly announced a $700-million tax cut. Mr. Harper felt he’d been played.
The following year, when Mr. Harper called an early election, his party was on the edge of a majority when cultural-program cuts tripped them up. The Tories portrayed the cuts as a small trim for artsy urbanites, but they were perceived in Quebec as English-Canadians cutting Québécois identity. A hilarious viral video portrayed Quebec singer Michel Rivard auditioning before a panel of unilingual anglophone bureaucrats. It was a debacle.
Mr. Charest came out publicly against the culture cuts.
“Some will say he had no choice because he was the premier of Quebec,” Mr. Soudas said. “But others would say we helped him out and all he had to do was be quiet.”
That rift never went away.
It wasn’t Mr. Charest who caused Mr. Harper to fail to win a majority, 14 years ago. That was a Conservative own goal. But the grudge is clearly still there for Ms. Byrne. Other Harper-era veterans remember it bitterly, too.
Maybe that old grudge has got nothing to do with Ben Harper, or his Twitter account, which has more than 9,000 followers, now including Antoine Dionne Charest – the son of Jean Charest. But Mr. Poilievre’s campaign apparently wants Tories to remember it.
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