Harper in election mode

On a day when the House of Commons reopened after a three-month break, the prime minister picked a venue a stone’s throw from Parliament Hill to preach to the converted.

On a day when the House of Commons reopened after a three-month break, the prime minister picked a venue a stone’s throw from Parliament Hill to preach to the converted.

Part state-of-the-government address and part electoral call to arms, the lecture that Stephen Harper delivered to a Conservative crowd essentially made up of his own party’s staffers and MPs was an extended version of his summer stump speech, with one significant variation.

The text came free of nominal attacks on his opposition rivals. The names of NDP and Liberal leaders Thomas Mulcair and Justin Trudeau did not come up a single time. Harper’s rhetoric was also rebalanced to make the government’s economic record — predictably the centrepiece of his re-election bid — more inclusive and less partisan.

The inference is that it is the fruits of the hard work of Canadians and not merely the Conservative legacy that stands to be squandered by the opposition parties.

Harper’s single-minded focus on the government’s record — including a lengthy but essentially par-for-the-course segment on foreign affairs — suggests that there has been a belated shift in the thinking of Conservative strategists.

Having spent months on attack mode only to enter a pre-election year behind the Liberal party, it seems they have come to the conclusion that they need to reintroduce Harper to voters more than they need to continue to try to pre-emptively destroy Trudeau’s public persona. In a recent Abacus poll, Harper scored more poorly than his main rivals in virtually every leadership category, with the poorest marks earned for attitude.

Timed as it was to set the tone for the last fall sitting of Parliament of this mandate, Monday’s speech served the dual purpose of setting the table for the Conservative re-election bid and also of dampening the fires — or in this case the embers — of speculation as to Harper’s political future.

For in delivering that speech, the prime minister implicitly took a pass on the last best window to announce that he will not be leading his party in next year’s election.

As of now, the odds of an orderly pre-election transition to a different Conservative leader will lengthen dramatically with every passing week.

In theory, Harper could still decide to call it quits before the next campaign. Some of his predecessors left much later in the pre-writ period.

In his day, Brian Mulroney did not grace successor Kim Campbell with more than a few months to make her mark before she had to face voters.

Mulroney’s mandate was in its fifth year when he resigned.

Pierre Trudeau also allowed the fourth anniversary of his return to power to pass — albeit by only a few days — before he took his now famous walk in the snow in 1984.

But neither Mulroney nor Trudeau could be said to have created the optimal conditions for a successful passing of the torch.

The Conservative Party has always been more of a collection of contrarian chapels than a united church.

When it does come, the campaign to replace Harper will be a competitive and potentially divisive affair.

Until then, it is far from certain that Harper’s latest signal that he is not going anywhere soon will put an end to covert preparations for his succession.

But it should ensure that they remain well below the surface until the election.

After all, if his fifth election bid should fail next year or even come short of a majority, the Conservatives could be plunged into a leadership campaign soon after.

If there ever was a pre-election year when a prime minister needs all hands on deck, it is at the tail end of a third consecutive mandate.

Like Trudeau and Mulroney, Harper after a decade in power has become a lightning rod for all that voters do not like about his government.

All the more the reason under the circumstances to focus the party and the caucus’s mind on the upcoming uphill battle for re-election.

The last, or next to last, act in Harper’s political career — depending on the 2015 election result — is underway.

Chantal Hébert is a syndicated Toronto Star national affairs writer.

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