Harper, Duffy face off

Does Stephen Harper lay awake at night fearing Mike Duffy? Should he? First, consider the alternative. Does Mike Duffy lay awake at night in Prince Edward Island fearing jail time? Should he?

Does Stephen Harper lay awake at night fearing Mike Duffy?

Should he?

First, consider the alternative.

Does Mike Duffy lay awake at night in Prince Edward Island fearing jail time?

Should he?

These are the stakes in a drama that began to play out in an Ottawa courtroom Tuesday.

This is going to end poorly for one of these two men — maybe both of them.

By now, the entire country is familiar with the narrative that has been crafted, in which the disgraced senator returns from the political grave to take down his tormenter, then returns to his P.E.I. enclave, his mission complete.

Like most grand narratives, the tale looks better on the story board.

Duffy and his lawyer, Donald Bayne, would like to have this matter at trial — with the country hearing dirty laundry in Harper’s office being aired, topped off by testimony from the prime minister himself — during an election year. A trial could last two months.

But first they have to tweak the narrative.

Step one — drop the naked revenge theme.

“This isn’t being run as a personal or political vendetta,” Bayne said on Tuesday. He pledged he would not have his trial turned into a political circus.

If, as the old adage goes, you can’t fight city hall, try dragging down a long-serving prime minister by vindictively signalling that goal.

We will now hear that Duffy doesn’t pose a threat to Harper but instead the danger comes from ripping the cover off the inner workings of the Prime Minister’s Office.

The conduit for that would be Nigel Wright, Harper’s former chief of staff who wrote a personal cheque for $90,000 to cover Duffy’s disputed expenses, part of what Bayne has argued was a PMO concoction to end a political problem; a scheme Duffy entered into reluctantly.

Bayne put it this way last July: “There is much that is offensive here. But the evidence will show that it did not emanate from Senator Duffy.”

Regardless of that statement, expect now to hear that Duffy is a conservative, a man merely trying to clear his name, not settle scores.

Step two — justify your need for speed in a non-political context.

Don’t make it sound like a political timetable, but say the urgency is due to the “physical, emotional and mental health,” of the senator.

Duffy has had open heart surgery, and surely he is under duress, but there appear to be no immediate health concerns. Duffy’s health had nothing to do with his decision not to travel to Ottawa on Tuesday.

Step three — don’t eagerly target Harper.

Bayne has talked about a “big evidentiary iceberg,” and a damaging email chain and implied he knew something about Harper’s involvement in the Wright payment, something Harper has always denied.

“I do have some information, but I can’t … I’m not presently prepared to divulge it,’’ Bayne said 11 months ago.

Now, the strategy would be to pull back from the vow that the prime minister will be called to testify. Just don’t rule it out, let the politicians and the pundits continually raise it and know his appearance would trump any other disclosures from the likes of former Senate leader Marjory LeBreton, senators on the board of internal economy, or even Wright.

It leaves us with a much more anodyne story than the previous elbows-up saga.

Clear the poor senator’s name and if Harper is hurt in the process, so be it.

Harper reiterated on Tuesday that he has nothing to add should he be subpoenaed.

The prime minister has co-operated “fully and freely’’ with the RCMP, said his spokesman Jason MacDonald.

“The RCMP have noted this and, after a thorough investigation, have made it clear who they believe is guilty of wrongdoing — Mike Duffy. They have also made clear that they do not believe the prime minister had any knowledge of Mr. Duffy’s wrongdoing. Given this, it is difficult to imagine that the prime minister would have any information that could be relevant to Mr. Duffy’s defence.’’

Right now, it’s likely that if anyone is having night yips about this, it is the man on the island.

Duffy is facing 31 complex charges, his reputation may not be salvageable, he does face the prospect of spending his declining years behind bars and it is not a given that Ontario’s backlogged court system can clear the time for a trial on his political timetable.

But all that could change if Duffy can force a subpoena on Harper.

The prime minister may have a number of perfectly legal reasons to refuse, but should he do so, he loses, Duffy wins and the senator sleeps soundly in the political world in which they both live.

Tim Harper is a syndicated Toronto Star national affairs writer. He can be reached at tharper@thestar.ca.

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