MONTREAL — Brian Mulroney wants a 25th anniversary bash next month marking his 1984 election win to be both a celebration and a bit of a reconciliation for his beloved Conservative party.
In his first public comments since a rift erupted this spring, pitting him and his supporters against Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Mulroney pleaded for party unity Wednesday.
“It’s in the interest of all Conservatives — Progressive Conservatives and the latter-day group — to come together in support of common principles,” Mulroney said in an interview with The Canadian Press.
“This is an evening of friendship, so everybody’s welcome.”
In a hint of that bridge-building, the Prime Minister’s Office said late Wednesday that Laureen Harper would attend the event on behalf of her husband. But the prime minister would miss it because of a two-day trip to the U.S. for a meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama.
“This is a great anniversary marking an historic election and the end of Trudeau-Turner Liberal rule,” said Harper’s spokesman Dimitri Soudas.
“Also, Mrs. Harper will attend. Unfortunately, the prime minister will be in Washington on Sept. 16 for a meeting with President Obama and on the 17th the prime minister has a speaking engagement in the United States.”
Tensions stemmed from a government decision to call a public inquiry into Mulroney’s business dealings with German lobbyist Karlheinz Schreiber.
First, there was Harper’s edict that members of his government not communicate directly with Mulroney while the inquiry was underway.
Then there were the clumsy attempts by senior members of Harper’s team to suggest Mulroney no longer wanted to be a card-carrying Conservative.
That false assertion caused a first backlash within the normally disciplined Tory caucus, with Mulroney loyalists leaking details of closed-door meetings and angrily declaring that a line had been crossed.
Mulroney still casts a long shadow in the party, particularly in Quebec.
Here he is revered by many as the man who achieved the historic feat of bringing both nationalists and federalists into the Tory tent — something Harper has tried to repeat, with limited success.
Many Quebec Tories complain that Harper has put too much faith in organizers with the now-moribund Action Democratique du Quebec (ADQ). They say he has ignored at his peril former Mulroney hands and allies of Quebec Premier Jean Charest, who could help deliver seats.
When asked earlier Wednesday whether Harper would attend the Montreal gathering, Mulroney replied: “I have no idea what his plans are.”
He said he understood prime ministers had busy schedules, and declined to discuss the personal chill between the men.
Mulroney did take thinly veiled jabs at Harper last spring — alluding to his ongoing struggles in Quebec — while testifying before the Oliphant inquiry.
In his interview Wednesday with The Canadian Press, Mulroney again stressed how successful his organization had been in Quebec.
“When I became leader (in 1983) we had one seat in Quebec,” he recalled. “Our first election in 1984 we got 58 seats — and 50 per cent of the popular vote. Then in 1988 we got 63 seats of the 74 here. . .
“We had quite a following here and . . . we were able to do some things that people remember favourably.”
But with the inquiry now over, and Schreiber deported to his native Germany, tensions appear to be easing.
Harper has refused to say whether he’ll be attending the Sept. 18 party at Montreal’s Windsor Hotel — but has left caucus members free to make their own decisions.
For some, like Revenue Minister Jean-Pierre Blackburn, the decision was a no-brainer.
“He feels like if it is a must for himself to be there,” said a statement from Blackburn’s office.
“Minister Blackburn was elected in 1984 and re-elected in 1988 with Prime Minister Mulroney. Minister Blackburn has a great opinion (of) Mr. Mulroney because he did so much for Quebec and our country. He really wants to be there. . .
“In life, some moments are important and, to him, this is one.”
Quebec MP Maxime Bernier, another fierce defender of Mulroney’s, said he’ll be attending the gala with his father Gilles Bernier, who served in the Mulroney government.
“Mr. Mulroney is a friend of my family,” Bernier said in an e-mail.
Other former PCers, including Greg Thompson, Peter MacKay, Lawrence Cannon and Jim Prentice, are also likely to attend.
On the Canadian Alliance side of the Conservative family, an aide for Immigration Minister Jason Kenney refused to share details of the minister’s private agenda. But he spoke glowingly of the upcoming affair.
“This will be a great anniversary,” spokesman Alykhan Velshi said in an e-mail.
“On September 4, 1984, Canadians voted overwhelmingly to oust the Liberal party, bringing a welcome end to years of rule by Pierre Trudeau and John Turner.”
Edmonton MP Peter Goldring said he would not be attending the gala, though he has received an invite. Nor will fellow Alberta MP Blake Richards, who indicated he already committed to several events in his own riding that weekend.