Ottawa strangely calm as premier walks tightrope

His political death – if it comes to that – will be a lonely one.

Charest en fin de régime - L'art de ne rien faire

OTTAWA – There was a time – not so long ago – when the travails of a Quebec federalist premier would have been treated as a nail-biter on Parliament Hill. But as Jean Charest struggled for his political life this week, there were few signs of federal anxiety over his potential impending demise.
If anything, the sight of the premier on a collision course with the opposition parties in the National Assembly and Quebec public opinion inspired morbid fascination rather than trepidation.
It was not that anyone was automatically assuming he would prevail in his test of will with the opposition or, failing that, would win an election that could result from a defeat of his minority government. (He will survive in the short term after a deal last night ensured the opposition will not topple his government in today's budget vote.)
But the Conservatives are still paying the political bills they ran up when they put together a Quebec-friendly budget at the tail end of the provincial campaign in March. As a senior member of Stephen Harper's government bluntly put it earlier this week, the kitty now stands empty, or at least it does as far as Charest's political needs are concerned.
The fact is that the Quebec assumptions that dictated a goodwill federal budget two months ago no longer hold. Indeed, many Conservatives came away from the Quebec election convinced they were backing the wrong horse.
As things stand today, Harper's troops are in better shape in francophone Quebec than the premier's party and the Prime Minister is more popular.
His Conservative party is philosophically closer to Mario Dumont's Action démocratique – the rising force in Quebec – than to Charest's Liberals. If Harper is to win more Quebec seats in the next federal election, he will need to tap the same pool as Dumont. That will hardly be achieved by being perceived as a foe of the ADQ.
Over the past week, the prospect of life without Charest has taken on an aura of inevitability in many quarters. Sadly for the embattled premier, Parliament Hill is no exception. His party's third place in the polls; Charest's own last-place standing, far behind Pauline Marois and Dumont, has reinforced the sense that, under any scenario except that of an improbable electoral resurrection, his days as leader are numbered.
For political veterans anywhere in Canada, the notion that an overwhelming 70 per cent of Quebecers oppose Charest's plan to cut taxes is the most damning indication that he is a spent commodity.
Like his mentor Brian Mulroney, Charest – it seems – has reached a stage where everything he touches turns into lead.
As a result, speculation no longer hinges on the shape of Charest's future but rather on the timing of his departure and the cost to his party if he overstays his welcome.
If and when Charest goes, there will be little sense of loss in federal circles. The Quebec battle is evolving from a duel between federalists and sovereignists to a more classical fight between progressives and small-c conservatives.
The Parti Québécois – under Marois – is putting referendum politics on the backburner. The popularity of its cause is in apparent decline. Two polls this week pegged support for sovereignty at under 40 per cent. The sovereignist dragon is not slain, but its fires have been doused.
From the perspective of the Canadian political establishment, Charest, a leader who very much went to Quebec almost a decade ago to champion federalism on its behalf, has outlived his usefulness.
His political death – if it comes to that – will be a lonely one.

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