Prime minister in high-stakes game of chicken

Stephen Harper is in a place no politician wants to be. The prime minister is out on a ledge, hewing to a version of events that appears less credible each day.

Stephen Harper is in a place no politician wants to be.

The prime minister is out on a ledge, hewing to a version of events that appears less credible each day.

And now he has to dodge the grenades Mike Duffy is lobbing at him.

Inside the red-carpeted Senate chamber late Tuesday afternoon, those in attendance were privy to a political performance that will outlive anyone who witnessed it, a man about to be politically buried reaching up from the grave to drag down everyone he could reach, most notably a prime minister facing the biggest crisis of his tenure.

This Duffy-Harper battle is a high-stakes game of chicken, but the fact that Duffy appeared to gain the upper hand on Tuesday is a direct result of an inept Prime Minister’s Office that has mismanaged its Senate stain for months.

It allowed — or directed — the Conservative leadership in the Senate to try to vapourize a trio of problems, make the three headaches named Duffy, Pamela Wallin and Patrick Brazeau disappear, and make sure they were gone by the time Harper had to rally his Tory troops at the end of the month at the Calgary convention.

They overreached and got a scorched earth in response. One could see this coming, but the ferocity of the Duffy counterattack shook the place to its foundation.

Duffy told the Senate that Harper personally told him to repay the $90,000 the PMO believed he owed, that the rules and the truth didn’t matter because the party base was getting restless and the cash had to be returned or Duffy would be booted from the Senate.

Following a caucus meeting on Feb. 13, 2013, Duffy said he met with Nigel Wright and Harper — “just the three of us” — where Harper told him to ‘pay the money back,’ end of discussion.”

Duffy urged his fellow senators to stand up to the “unaccountable power” of Harper’s office and the “short pants” brigade running the country through bullying and intimidation.

And, most damaging, he repeated what we heard from his lawyer, Donald Bayne, on Monday — that there are documents that will be released at the proper time, “when all of the players are under oath and the email chain can be seen in its entirety.”

Duffy, Brazeau and Wallin, who has yet to have her day of defence, have likely lost the battle of public opinion, but all three have been pushed into a corner by Harper where they have, predictably, decided to bite back.

Duffy has hinted at this moment for months and while Harper’s office must have been girding for the counterattack, it is inexplicable that it hastened this day.

While Duffy was verbose, Harper was nearly mute in the Commons earlier Tuesday in his first confrontation with Opposition Leader Tom Mulcair since last spring.

Harper spent most of the daily question period glaring contemptuously at his inquisitor, tossing the job of repeating the message track to his parliamentary secretary, Paul Calandra.

Harper has not wavered. He did not know about the payment from Wright to Duffy, Wright acted alone, had Harper known about it, he would have shut it down.

This game of chicken can now only be resolved in one of three possible ways.

One plausible outcome is that Harper is telling the truth and, even if many if not most Canadians are doubting him, there can be no risk in telling the truth and he has no other alternative.

There is no smoking gun yet to show otherwise, but Harper’s story is hanging by a thinner and thinner thread.

His position must remain precise. He either knew or he didn’t know; there is no room for nuance in that answer.

He must now not only defend himself against his opponents, but those who were once friends.

Another plausible outcome is that Harper and his office know what Duffy is holding back in his documents and they know that there is no smoking gun in that pile of emails his lawyer Bayne packed with him at a Monday press conference.

Even as the doubts creep in, Harper can call the senator’s bluff.

Less plausible is the chance that Harper and his staff believe Duffy will not ultimately release what he has.

That’s a very poor bet.

To shut this down, over the course of almost 11 months, Harper’s office has bullied, smeared, changed stories, tried to change the channel and stonewalled. They haven’t placed a winning bet yet.

Last week’s throne speech and a triumphal trade deal in principle with the European Union already seem like distant memories.

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

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