Harper pegged to play key role in negotiating Brexit

Stephen Harper, true to form, ducked out of the spotlight quickly last weekend, less than two hours after his name hit the international headlines.

The former prime minister was named as a possible Brexit negotiator should Jeremy Hunt win the U.K. Conservative leadership race this month.

Hunt’s team told the Sunday Times that Harper, along with former interim leader Rona Ambrose, had been recruited to help the next potential British prime minister navigate Britain’s exit from the European Union.

Harper quickly clarified the report, saying on Twitter that while he would be willing to offer his assistance to any future PM, he was staying officially neutral in the contest to replace Theresa May.

It probably isn’t the last time we’ll hear about a Harper role in future Brexit negotiations — or at least it shouldn’t be.

Whether or not you were a fan of Harper in power in Canada, it’s difficult to think of anyone better placed to advise Britain through this political dance that has already claimed the careers of two U.K. Conservative leaders.

It’s not just Harper’s experience in negotiating the trade deal with Canada and the EU, which was cited in weekend articles as the big draw for Hunt and his team.

Nor is it merely his familiarity with populism and globalism and how to reconcile these two often-opposing forces — which also happens to be the topic of his latest book, Right Here, Right Now.

If Britain is looking for someone who’s also thought a lot about messy national breakups, Harper also has some expertise dating back a couple of decades.

Those with long memories of Canada’s national-unity saga will recall that Harper truly climbed to critical political attention back in the 1990s as the voice of the old Reform party on the prospect of Quebec secession from Canada.

The Liberal government of the time never gave him credit, but it was Harper, then an opposition MP for Calgary West, who first came up with the idea of Canada setting concrete terms around Quebec separation.

Before there was a Clarity Act — Jean Chretien’s term-setting legislation after the near-loss of federalism in the 1995 Quebec referendum, there was the Quebec Contingency Act, written and sponsored by Harper.

As columnist Chantal Hebert wrote about the clarity legislation in 2001: “In the matter of his government’s main initiative on the unity front, Prime Minister Jean Chretien is merely a foster parent to Harper’s love child.”

Or, in the words of one of Harper’s earliest biographers, William Johnson: “Harper demonstrated better judgment in addressing the issue of secession than any other politician. Let history record it so.”

What Harper brought to that debate — no surprise, given his later governing style — was a refreshing hard-headedness. While much of the federalist political class was fixated on accommodation and what could be done to make Quebec stay, Harper was talking about negotiation with a Quebec that was choosing to leave.

Britain could probably do with a dose of that hard-headedness right now, as well as Harper’s reflections on the kind of populism that turned Brexit into a reality in the 2016 referendum.

Those reflections are spread throughout Right Here, Right Now — which in light of recent news, could be seen as an application letter of sorts for a Brexit-negotiating job.

“The British simply never wanted a political, social and legal union with Europe in the first place. They never looked for much beyond economic integration,” Harper writes.

“In other words, they preferred — and are now seeking — a relationship with the European Union comparable with what Canada has had with the United States.”

Harper stresses throughout the book that populism and protectionism do not go hand in hand — that it is indeed possible for Brexit to coexist with international trade and capitalism.

You can see why would-be prime ministers such as Jeremy Hunt — and who knows, maybe Boris Johnson, too — would find that kind of thinking interesting as Britain tries to wriggle out of its Brexit jam.

If Harper does end up at the negotiating table on Brexit, it will be largely a product of the thinking he put into his book.

But over the long run of history, it would also be a bookend to the work he did back here in Canada as a thoughtful, strategic MP in the populist Reform party, thinking out of the box at the time on the prospect of Quebec secession.

As a bonus for Conservatives, given the current climate, a Brexit negotiating role would put Harper out of the country in the heat of the election, in which Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is promising to make him a recurring character — warning Canadians that Andrew Scheer is just a Harper sequel.

Scheer was a supporter of Brexit. Having his old leader in a key negotiating role would form an interesting bridge between the old and new Conservative leaders.

So yes, Harper has dodged any talk for now of taking on a consulting role in Brexit. But watch this space — that job is probably ideal for him, for historical and very current reasons.

Susan Delacourt is a columnist with Torstar Syndication Services.

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