Prime minister losing his grip?

Out of the wreckage of the Senate spending showdown, Stephen Harper found the planks of a reconstructed Conservative narrative on Wednesday.

Out of the wreckage of the Senate spending showdown, Stephen Harper found the planks of a reconstructed Conservative narrative on Wednesday.

It goes like this: yes former Conservative Senator Mike Duffy is being truthful when he says the prime minister ordered him to repay the housing allowance he had received for a P.E.I. cottage he never maintained as a primary residence.

And, yes, Harper is the driving force behind the bid to suspend Duffy and colleagues Pamela Wallin and Patrick Brazeau from the Senate without pay. He put his full weight behind it in the House and in caucus on Wednesday.

But for the chain of events that led the government and a trio of its own Senate appointees from the point of ordering reimbursements of public funds to this week’s political drama in both houses of Parliament, Harper claims no active role.

From the moment he directed Duffy to repay the allowance in full — and regardless of the political turmoil that order unleashed in his own office and in the Senate — Harper, it seems, assumed that the world was unfolding as it should or at least as he had instructed.

This consolidated version will not satisfy the opposition parties but it will play well with many of the Conservative faithful who will be gathering for a national party convention in Calgary at the end of the month. It certainly casts their leader in the best possible light in the circumstances.

There will be little sympathy there — or in within the public in general — for Duffy’s basic contention that he is just the scapegoat of a government unfairly trying to restore its image of financial prudence at his expense.

But raising the status of the Senate expense scandal from an ethics-related fiasco to a messy public execution of the presumed guilty parties in the Senate — even if it fits the partisan calendar and the short-term objectives of the government — will come at a price.

The first consequence this week has been a Conservative message derailed from the business of government unto the business of government ethics.

With so much else going on — from a massive trade deal with Europe to an unprecedented imbroglio in the Supreme Court — it was still impossible to look away from the Conservative bloodletting that has dominated the debates in the two houses of Parliament all week.

There are also renewed questions as to the prime minister’s judgment. Harper, after all, hand-picked all the players in this political drama.

And then, some degree of heavy-handedness has always been part of the features of the Prime Minister’s Office. It has long acted as the ultimate political enforcer of the government.

But the culture of expedient justice that has led to this week’s clash has been the defining feature of this particular regime.

Over the past year, the approach has alienated a growing number of Conservatives. The Senate episode is no exception. One only needed to listen to Tory Senator Hugh Segal vehemently denounce the ousting of his colleagues as a travesty of justice on Wednesday to verify that.

Finally the test of a government usually rests on its ability to manage crisis. But this government is becoming less and less adept at managing itself.

The Senate story was never going to go away quickly, not with a still ongoing RCMP investigation. But this week it was the government’s handling of it that lifted it out of the Parliament Hill bubble and turned it into a topic for the water-cooler conversations of the nation.

Over the space of only two weeks, Canadians were also treated to an unfocused throne speech; a bungled Supreme Court appointment as well as conflicting messages from the prime minister and his Quebec lieutenant Denis Lebel over the rules that should govern a future Quebec referendum.

All that after a summer officially devoted to the resetting of the government.

What would it have been if the Conservatives had not taken a four-month breather to regroup?

Chantal Hébert is a syndicated Toronto Star national affairs writer.

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