PM at risk on economy, not Helena Guergis

Political scandals have nervous feet. Famously fluid, they seamlessly shift from cause to effect.

Political scandals have nervous feet. Famously fluid, they seamlessly shift from cause to effect.

As it spills into another week, the affair burying Helena Guergis and Rahim Jaffer in dirt is following a path from superficial events to significant problem. No longer about the sordid cast of characters, it’s now about leadership, strategies and the coming election campaign.

Stephen Harper moved fast to block that escalation by alerting the RCMP to swirling allegations about a very junior cabinet minister and a former caucus chair mostly remembered for squandering a “safe” Alberta seat.

Michael Ignatieff is trying to accelerate the process by shifting attention from the scandal’s sketchy details to Harper’s handling of what has become a slippery political pig.

It’s an unlikely confrontation. Calling the cops was the ethically correct and politically safe option and there’s rarely much advantage in savaging an opponent for doing what’s right and shrewd.

Still, there’s a coincidental crack in the Conservative defence that Liberals hope to widen into a disconnect between Harper and voters. Knowing the ruling party will fight the next election on leadership, Liberals are seeding the notion that a careless Harper skipped asking his minister questions after her husband was linked to drugs, thugs and influence peddling.

As a tactic, Liberal opportunism benefits from familiarity. Maxime Bernier, an underperforming minister to be sacked for other reasons, was hustled out of cabinet when he exposed secret documents to a girlfriend with biker history.

Those are not the images that law-and-order, family values Conservatives so vigorously project. Nor are they the most promising Liberal targets.

Harper’s advantage is not those around him. It’s the association Canadians make between Harper and a surprisingly sturdy economy.

Liberals who bequeathed Conservatives a $13 billion surplus have failed to shatter the perception that Harper is a competent fiscal manager. They haven’t convinced Canadians that wild Conservative spending and reckless tax cuts put Canada on course for deficits long before the global financial meltdown.

Instead, Liberals are making the most of the next best thing. They are chipping at Harper’s reputation by questioning his judgment in keeping weak Guergis in cabinet too long and not exercising due-diligence when Jaffer’s conduct waved so many red flags.

One poll suggests some success. According to EKOS Research, Conservative support is drifting down towards Liberal depths.

More than one survey is needed to establish a trend. Even so, what’s evident is that Harper is liked best when he’s running the country unobtrusively and least when playing politics.

So far, this scandal is all about politics. Guergis and Jaffer were always peripheral Conservatives and what’s now known about their behaviour speaks more to personal frailties than systemic Harper administration failures.

That will change if time and police prove there’s more than idle boasting to claims of privileged access to the prime minister’s office and to lush public contracts.

Liberals aren’t waiting for that uncertain progression. They are nudging scandal towards a higher toxic level by doing everything possible to make it about Harper.

But casting shadows over Harper’s handling of Guergis is little and late. It would now sting more if Liberals had created doubt about Harper’s management of what matters most: The economy.

Jim Travers writes for The Toronto Star Syndicate.

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