Harper and Ford are betting on each other

They are, on the surface, the Canadian political odd couple.

They are, on the surface, the Canadian political odd couple.

There’s our buttoned-down prime minister, the risk averse, purveyor of the bland, Stephen Harper. And there’s Toronto’s dishevelled, risk-happy, erratic mayor, Rob Ford.

Stylistically, they are polar opposites. Harper would treat a meeting with a voter in an unscripted moment as a crisis. Ford ditches his aides and wanders into crowds at a Saturday night street festival on the Danforth.

Harper works hard to avoid overexposure. Ford has his own open line show.

The prime minister seeks political advantage in a squeaky clean image, proudly denying marijuana use in his younger years while Ford laughs, and, without missing a beat, agrees he smoked “a lot.’’

Yes, opposites attract, but this bromance is built on political philosophy and political expediency.

This week’s subway funding announcement, spread over two days for maximum media exposure, is a victory for the suburbs over the city for two men whose support grows the farther they are from the urban core.

Two other things Ford and Harper have in common — their names are usually spit out in contempt in downtown Toronto and neither much cares.

They have enjoyed a bear-hugging, bass-hooking, subway-funding relationship since the days before Harper’s 2011 election, when Ford gave him a loud, full-throated endorsement at a suburban rally on election eve.

Now they are banking on each other and the early votes are in.

Harper has signalled he believes in a Ford re-election in 2014 and he’s quite happy to help him, as long as the mayor lends him the support Harper will need to keep and grow his suburban beachhead the following year in the 2015 election campaign. The next federal election could indeed hinge on the Greater Toronto Area and 905 suburbs that slavishly back Ford. The prime minister and his finance minister, Jim Flaherty, have clearly decided that the scandal-prone, gaffemeister mayor will not have another nuclear misstep between now and voting day in 2014.

This is not merely Conservatives deciding Ford is safe. This is a full-out plan to embrace Toronto’s stumbling mayor.

Harper, in a so-called “photo op” with a municipal politician on a Sunday, all pictures, no questions from reporters, is not a typical page from the prime minister’s playbook.

Harper and Flaherty get a two-fer in one fell swoop, not only helping Ford with the subway announcement, but undermining the provincial Liberals as well, providing a potential bump for their other ally in Toronto, provincial Progressive Conservative leader Tim Hudak.

So what if this feeds distrust between the federal government and the government of the largest province? This is all about politics.

And if the subway extension is slated to please voters in a part of Toronto where NDP MP Olivia Chow has support as a potential mayoral challenger to Ford? Well, that’s a little gravy on the subway train for both men.

Regardless of the merits or demerits of the subway extension, this is the best $660-million down payment on political success Harper and Flaherty could make.

“You have our money, let’s get this subway built,’’ Flaherty declared.

Flaherty never wavered in his support of Ford, no matter what video, boorish behaviour or disjointed logic was coming from City Hall.

The finance minister is “very close” to the Ford family and held personal talks with the mayor during his summer of turmoil. Flaherty, of course, served alongside the mayor’s father at Queen’s Park and gave Ford a key early endorsement in the 2010 campaign, long before Harper was attending the Ford barbecue or fishing with him on Harrington Lake.

Flaherty, as the Greater Toronto Area minister, likes to tout up to $4.5 billion spent on Toronto infrastructure, including the expansion of GO Transit, the renovation of Union Station and the Sheppard East light rail line, and he would object to any suggestion that the Harper government favours suburban projects in enclaves worth mining for Conservative votes.

But those announcements paled in comparison to this extravaganza, Ford gazing in wonderment Sunday, Harper at his side, squeezing through the subway turnstiles with Flaherty and Conservative MP Roxanne James, embracing Flaherty with a thumb’s up.

“I want to sincerely, sincerely thank Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Finance Minister Jim Flaherty,’’ Ford gushed.

If the players in this game of subway politics have it figured correctly, Ford will get his chance to deliver his thank you in the fall of 2015.

Tim Harper is a syndicated Toronto Star national affairs writer. He can be reached at tharper@thestar.ca.

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