PM sets government adrift

It is hard to overstate how Dimitri Soudas — the loyalist who stepped down as executive director of the Conservative party on Sunday only four months after he was hand-picked for the job by the prime minister — was first and foremost Stephen Harper’s man.

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It is hard to overstate how Dimitri Soudas — the loyalist who stepped down as executive director of the Conservative party on Sunday only four months after he was hand-picked for the job by the prime minister — was first and foremost Stephen Harper’s man.

When Harper’s chief of staff Nigel Wright left last May, Soudas, who had then been off the government payroll for two years, still pitched in with the spin-doctoring.

It was as if he had never relinquished his former duties as a mouthpiece of the PMO.

Soudas was pushed out after interfering in a local nomination feud involving his life partner MP Eve Adams. But that battle was part of a larger movement that is seeing many Toronto-area Conservative MPs scrambling to grab the safer ridings on offer in the wake of electoral redistribution.

With party fortunes down in the polls government incumbents are leaving more vulnerable seats for newcomers to defend.

That can’t be good news for the Conservative party in the lead-up to what could be Harper’s toughest election test in a decade.

Nor for that matter is the gaping hole in the thin Quebec fabric of the Conservative party that Soudas’s departure creates.

That Harper is more isolated and less in control today than a year ago is not in doubt.

Consistently mediocre poll results; heightened caucus unrest; public cabinet squabbles; a poorly handled Senate scandal and what has turned out to be a bad hire for the top party job indicate as much.

A more interesting question is whether, after a decade at the helm, the Conservative leader is inexorably becoming detached/distracted from the business of running the party and the country.

Evidence that the government is adrift is accumulating and the responsibility for that can be traced right back to the top.

More often than not over the past 18 months, the messes that the prime minister has had to mop up have been of his own making.

The Soudas episode is just one case in point.

The Supreme Court has just rapped Harper’s knuckles by invalidating his latest nominee to the top bench.

That ruling is expected to pave the way for a dismissal of the Conservative case for unilateral reform of the Senate.

That would leave Harper with two unpalatable choices: to launch a constitutional round or to resume picking senators and everyone knows how well that worked in the recent past.

Meanwhile, the government’s signature electoral reform bill has the Conservatives circling the wagons against a quasi-unanimous barrage of independent criticism.

The bill may have been meant to reach out to lost 2011 Conservative party supporters but it is more likely to be achieving the opposite.

Since the beginning of the year, Harper has missed two out of three daily question periods in the House of Commons — including Monday’s sitting, the first since his return from a week abroad.

The most memorable Harper sighting in the Commons so far this year took place the day after Jim Flaherty’s 2014 budget.

On that occasion, the prime minister did double duty, fielding not only the questions of the other leaders but also those meant for his now departed finance minister.

That prevented the opposition parties from probing the depth of an extraordinary wedge opened up by Flaherty’s public doubts as to the merits of sticking with the Conservative 2011 election promise to extend income-splitting to families. He may be gone but his criticism of a central party policy lingers.

The only thing memorable about the prime minister’s budget-related answers that day was that they prevented Flaherty from speaking for himself.

By contrast, over his travels to western Europe last week, Harper has looked more engaged than he has in a long time in Parliament or on the road in Canada.

Harper is not the first prime minister to develop — over time — a preference for the high stakes of the international scene over the House of Commons and the domestic issues that preoccupy it.

But in the past, that trend did not lead to improved re-election odds or indeed to a re-election attempt.

Chantal Hébert is a syndicated Toronto Star national affairs writer.

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