It's no state secret. Stephen Harper's ambition is to see the Tories eventually dethrone the Liberals as Canada's natural governing party. And the strategy for it comes courtesy of Tom Flanagan, his top adviser.
Flanagan calls it a war of attrition against the Grits - a kind of étapiste warfare in which the first blow came in 2004 with Paul Martin getting only a minority government. The second was in 2006 when Harper won his minority. The third hit, Flanagan hopes, could be this election with the Tories ending either with another minority or hitting the majority jackpot if the Green Party and the NDP further split the left-of-centre vote. In his book, Harper's Team, Flanagan kindly credits the NDP with having taken enough votes from the Grits to secure Harper's victory in 2006.
Should Harper win the next election, Flanagan predicts the Liberal Party would be thrown into chaos and be forced into another divisive leadership race that would leave the cash-strapped Liberals crying all the way to the bank. As a bonus, Harper would then be blessed with an even weaker official opposition.
And this is where we get to Harper's ultimate prize: a context ripe enough for him to try to turn conservatism into Canada's dominant public philosophy - something Flanagan lamented last year wasn't "yet" the case. That's why, he wrote, it's important for the Tories to tame voters with "small conservative reforms" before they can be powerful enough to get to the big ones. Note the word "yet." Scary? No kidding.
While it's too soon to say whether Flanagan's scenario will unfold as such, at this moment his musings aren't that improbable. Stéphane Dion's leadership woes are real enough. So are his party's wobbly finances and the divisive ambitions of Bob Rae and Michael Ignatieff. So is the possibility that the Greens, the NDP and the Bloc could end up further splitting the non-conservative vote.
The campaign isn't officially on, so polls should be taken with a grain of salt. But so far they do show that widening gap. Tuesday's Strategic Counsel/Globe and Mail-CTV News poll put the Conservatives at 37 per cent, Liberals at 29 per cent, the NDP at 17, Greens at 9 and the Bloc at 8. That's a whopping 63 per cent of respondents split among four centrist or left-leaning parties.
The real poll, as they say, is the one on election night. But if final results confirm this tendency, Harper and Flanagan will be one happy ideologically-driven tag team. And quite a team they make. Flanagan, a Catholic, U.S.-born professor of political science at the University of Calgary, has been Harper's closest adviser since the days of the Reform Party. Tory insider Ezra Levant describes the two men as "symbiotic partners" and Flanagan as the "master strategist, the godfather, even - of Harper." Levant says he even calls him "Don Tomaso." Flanagan is also one of the creators of the School of Calgary - perhaps Canada's top group of neo-con thinkers.
For instance, if Harper keeps pulling off his grand seduction of Quebec nationalists, though he used to abhor them, it's because he agrees with Flanagan that for electoral reasons, it's best to appease them if only symbolically.
Strangely for someone who shares Harper's distrust of the media, Flanagan is so confident in his own brilliance and Dion's ineptitude that he has taken to detailing his strategies on a regular basis on the Globe and Mail's op-ed page.
Sometimes, he even does it before Harper gets to implement them. Last year, he published his "brinksmanship" strategy before the House sat, calling for more confidence votes to force Dion into either bringing down the government or looking weak in refusing to do so.
But for all his strategical prowess, Flanagan forgets one thing. Even if the non-conservative vote remains split for years to come, it will still make up a sizeable majority. That could mean real opposition from citizens - the social and grass-roots kind - should Harper attempt to impose fully his Calgary school brand of conservatism.
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