With Conservative polling numbers pointing in the wrong direction, could Stephen Harper take a walk in the snow before the next election?
Only six months after a federal campaign that brought more Conservatives to the House of Commons, the notion that the end of the political life of the prime minister could come before the first anniversary of his second election victory next fall is no longer considered unthinkable.
At the annual gathering of the Public Policy Forum in Toronto – an event that attracted a fair number of Conservatives earlier this month – talk of Harper’s succession was rampant.
The fate of the leadership of the federal Conservatives is increasingly consuming the Canadian political chattering class.
But while it is possible to make a case that Harper himself could be well-served by retiring early, the same cannot be said of his party or his government.
In the current circumstances, self-interest would certainly dictate that Harper consider handing over the reins before the next election as there is mounting evidence that last October’s federal vote stands to have been the high-water mark of his tenure.
The stalling of the core Conservative agenda in Parliament; the resurgence of long-standing tensions between the two factions that make up the reunited party; the estrangement of Quebec compounded by a significant decline in support in Ontario all point to an ongoing erosion of Conservative prospects.
If an election were held this spring, polls suggest the best-case Conservative outcome would be a reduced minority, a result that could brand Harper as a lame duck leader as of the morning after the vote. In the alternative scenario of a Conservative defeat, few people expect he would want to stay on as leader of the Opposition.
But while quitting while he is technically ahead could make sense for the prime minister, a pre-election departure would also inflict serious damage on his party and on his own reputation as a responsible politician.
In the short term, Harper is almost certainly the only Conservative with a credible chance of snatching a victory out of the jaws of defeat in the next campaign.
None of the potential contenders to the throne has attained the stature of its current occupant or demonstrated the potential to do so within the six-month to one-year period that likely separates Canada from a return trip to the polls, and none is an obvious consensus choice to bridge the divide between former Tories and ex-Reformers.
A case in point is Jim Prentice, the potential candidate whom many see as the favourite to succeed Harper. He is considered a hard sell in Central Canada because of his Alberta roots by some, and dismissed as a difficult sell to the Western Canada party base because of his progressive credentials by others. A leadership campaign at this juncture could split the party wide open.
And then, the notion that the government could steer the country through a deep economic crisis and run a fractious minority Parliament even as it is distracted by a divisive leadership campaign is, for lack of a better word, problematic.
For many Canadians, the sight of Harper abandoning ship in such a perfect storm could reasonably be construed as a dereliction of duty.
Almost every past prime minister has hurt his party by overstaying his welcome, but, as he considers his diminishing options, Harper is faced with the opposite predicament.
Chantal Hebert writes for The Toronto Star Syndicate.