A year from now, we will know the absolute answer to a question. Will Stephen Harper still be leader of the Conservative Party of Canada? He is the only person who knows the answer, except he probably doesn’t. Not yet. Not absolutely.
There is always great intrigue and considerable mystique about a prime minister’s future. At the height of power, it is so hard to conceive of walking away. It is often said very few know when to leave and even fewer leave properly.
Leaving properly is about knowing when it is over. That finite moment when the powerful realize his or her ride is out-of-road because there is just no way he or she can win again. But it is more complicated than that. It is all about leaving at the right time in order to provide your successor with enough ramp-up time to be competitive in the next election.
The next election is no later than 17 months from now. As things stand today, it is hard to make any reasonable argument that would assure anyone that Harper could turn the tide and win.
But everything can dramatically change in an election campaign, and the recent Quebec and Ontario elections are prime examples of being cautious in making predictions. That being said, the problem for Harper is that he has been prime minister for almost a decade, and it is just hard to be liked and popular when you have exercised power over such a long period of time. It is political life. One day it is over and once unpopular it is difficult to get people to like you again.
Aside from his many years as prime minister, there is growing discontent over his leadership style. He has been labelled a bully, and his latest public argument with Chief Justice Beverly McLachlin of the Supreme Court of Canada seems to have reinforced that image.
In fairness to Harper, I have never experienced a prime minister who wasn’t a bully, but that’s for history or political science classes. It is a whole other story that won’t help Harper’s image or popularity between now and the election in 2015. His problem is actually more personal than political.
The clock is ticking on the optimal time to announce he won’t be there for the next election, should that be his decision. If he would want to leave his party with enough time to prepare a seamless transition without it being a rush from leadership race to election, then the timing framework is within the next few months.
Both Liberal John Turner in 1984 and Progressive Conservative Kim Campbell in 1993 proved how foolhardy it is to go to the people just after a leadership race. Both suffered historically humiliating defeats, and it is hard to imagine anyone else trying that anytime soon.
One of the more interesting aspects of a leader contemplating leaving is that it is done in virtual silence. In a town where gossip can be lethal, a leader is sizably diminished as soon as there is any suggestion that he or she is leaving. The decision to stay or go is a lonely one for sure.
That leaves the aspiring leadership candidates with the challenge of building teams within a cone-of-silence. There is no question that organizations are being built on paper. The blueprints are ready and their architects poised to pounce the moment Harper might say goodbye.
There is an interesting sidebar to this being played out in Alberta. It involves the leadership race for the Progressive Conservative Party there looking for a new leader to succeed Alison Redford. It involves the candidacy of former Harper minister Jim Prentice.
Prentice left the Harper government in 2010 to make some money and to think about his political future. There was never a shortage of smarts, charm and ambition. He had always been considered a serious candidate to succeed Harper.
But there are those in Alberta who think Prentice would be a first-rate premier. Last month, they finally convinced him to commit to the leadership race. Prentice hesitated as long as he could before opting for Alberta.
Prentice’s decision just may mean that, a year from now, Harper will still be leader of the Conservative Party of Canada.
Then again, there is only one person who may know for sure, and he’s not talking.