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Red Tory or blue Liberal?


If Calgary West MP Rob Anders is to be believed, the latest plague on Stephen Harper’s house is a red Tory insurgency whose front line is his Alberta riding.

According to Anders, efforts to nominate someone else to run under the local Conservative banner in 2015 are part of a bid by the progressive faction of the conservative movement to hijack the party and steer it to the left.

It is not the first time that the MP, whose main claim to fame nationally is to have been the sole parliamentarian to oppose granting Nelson Mandela honourary citizenship for his battle against apartheid in South Africa, has faced a challenge.

In a previous life, Alison Redford — the province’s current premier — tried in vain to wrestle the federal nomination from Anders.

Since then, a full-fledged civil war has erupted between the provincial Tories and the Wildrose party. The latest challenge to Anders is not totally divorced from the fratricide battle that has overtaken Alberta’s conservative movement and that stands to make both sides even more motivated to mobilize for a showdown.

But in the larger national picture, the last thing Harper needs as he struggles to reverse declining party fortunes is for Conservatives to fight Conservatives in battles that exacerbate the tensions between red and blue Tories.

If there ever was a time when Harper could ill afford to ostracize his progressive wing, it is now. It was not diehard Liberals or committed New Democrats who initially denied Harper a government in 2004 or who relented and gave him a majority in 2011, but rather the middle-of-the road voters who regularly trade the label of a blue Liberal for that of a red Tory.

Those chameleon voters have the power to take power out of Conservative hands in 2015 and the early indication is that a critical number of them are growing more comfortable with Justin Trudeau than with Harper’s true-blue Conservatives.

It may be that government strategists are so blinded by the aura of the Liberal leader’s name or so comforted by the prospect of a war of attrition between his party and the NDP in the next election that they fail to see that Trudeau’s preferred path to power runs through their own soft left flank.

To beat the New Democrats, the Liberal leader is intent on winning over the centre-right voters who have held the balance of power between his party and Harper’s in the past. Two recent byelections suggest that it could work.

In Manitoba’s Brandon-Souris last fall, the Liberal vote increased ninefold and the party lost narrowly to the incumbent Conservatives.

A year before in Calgary Centre, only four percentage points separated the winning Conservative score from that of the Liberals. The Liberals almost doubled their share of the vote from the 2011 election while the Conservatives lost 20 points.

Based on past Conservative performance in those ridings, neither would have made the list of most winnable Liberal seats in a general election. There are plenty of ridings across the country where a smaller vote swing would bring a seat in the Liberal column. But Calgary Centre and Brandon-Souris did have in common a red Tory track record. Under Joe Clark, the former Progressive Conservatives made their last stand against the Reform/Alliance in Western Canada in such ridings.

One of Harper’s signature achievements has been to keep the federal Conservative party whole for a successful decade.

But over that time, the fracture between the former Tories and their Reform rivals has not fully healed. The disaffection of scores of 2011 supporters of the Conservative party as shown in the polls month after month is a symptom of that failure. Those lost voters are bolstering the number (now a majority) of those who feel the country is headed in the wrong direction.

A red Tory coup-in-the-making there may not be except in the self-serving imagination of MP Anders, but cracks in the fragile foundation of Harper’s hard-earned majority there most certainly are and they are becoming harder to paper over.

Chantal Hébert is a syndicated Toronto Star national affairs writer.

 
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