Politics

TWO TO TANGO

In the Alliance and Tory dance, somebody had to lead, notes JOHN GEDDES

October 27 2003
Politics

TWO TO TANGO

In the Alliance and Tory dance, somebody had to lead, notes JOHN GEDDES

October 27 2003

TWO TO TANGO

Politics

In the Alliance and Tory dance, somebody had to lead, notes JOHN GEDDES

THERE’S A CERTAIN fascination in the nuances of deal-making. No sooner had the big fact of a pact to unite the right been confirmed than the obsession with every little detail that went into it took hold. And close attention to what transpired between Stephen Harper and Peter MacKay does bring some nice touches to the tale. Like the way MacKay, the Tory leader, hobbled into the final latenight talks on Oct. 15 on crutches, having wrenched his knee in a rugby game, his painkillers wearing off by the time he signed on the dotted line. Or how Harper was followed by a journalist from the airport after he landed in Ottawa for that final session at a secret downtown office location, shaking the reporter’s car only by having his own driver take a detour onto Parliament Hill, where security delayed his pursuer long enough to let the Alliance leader speed away.

But take a step back from last-minute minutiae and the longer game that led to the breakthrough comes into focus. One unavoidable conclusion—though Tories dispute it—is that Harper drove the process. It may take two to tango, but somebody has to lead. Harper signalled he was willing to take risks to make it happen in his very first speech in the House after becoming Canadian Alliance leader last year, when he surprised just about everybody by using the occasion to heap praise on Brian Mulroney. Why risk annoying Alliance stalwarts, especially old Reformers, who devoutly despise that living icon of the Progressive Conservative party they quit? Because there was no better way to reach out to diehard Tories who are just as devout in their reverence for him. “Frankly,” Harper told Maclean’s at the time, “Fm making a political point.” Point taken. Harper’s overtures to the Tories’ Mulroney wing paid off. The former prime minister’s hand was key in shaping the climate for a right-of-centre reconciliation. Not only did Mulroney encourage both Harper and MacKay, his desire for a deal sent a get-on-board message to reticent oldschool Tories. Mulroney’s former top cabinet lieutenant, Don Mazankowski, even agreed to serve as one of MacKay’s emissaries at negotiations that began in late August. And while those talks came up short, leaving it to Harper and MacKay to hammer out the final terms, it was Mazankowski who really got things rolling by proposing a full merger, rather than something more limited. “I didn’t think it would go this far this fast,” MacKay admitted at the news conference announcing the deal.

Tory fundraisers—again, many still closely linked to Mulroney—were also urging MacKay on. Directors of the PC Canada Fund endorsed the merger concept early this month, according to a senior Tory source. Auto parts executive Belinda Stronach privately acted as a facilitator. In fact, common concern pulled the two parties’ fundraisers and donors closer as the talks dragged on. “Alliance and Tory fundraisers were at the point of getting together and going to both of the leaders and saying, ‘We’re not going to raise any more money for either of you if you don’t do this deal,’ ” said Bob Dechert, a Toronto lawyer and Alliance fundraiser. “Luckily, we don’t have to do that now.” Panic gripped the backroom gangs when the on-again, off-again merger talks looked close to being switched off for good. They were facing the dispiriting prospect of trying to scrounge campaign cash while heading, still splitting right-leaning votes, into a likely spring election against the Paul Martin-led Liberals. Harper was equally desperate for a deal—but MacKay appeared standoffish. Harper was forced to fly to Toronto on Oct. 8 to virtually chase down the Tory leader at a routine party event near the city. They met for a couple of hours. Two days later, they spoke again by telephone—but prospects remained dim. The main stumbling block: how to pick the new party’s leader. “It was at that point that Harper said, ‘Look, why don’t we take the Thanksgiving weekend off? Meet with our families, and just get away from this thing and do a little soul-searching,’ ” said one of MacKay’s aides. A nice thought—but Harper also promptly leaked a memo to the media outlining what he called MacKay’s “lack of any spirit of compromise.”

FUNDRAISERS

were at the point of saying they wouldn’t raise any more money if the deal wasn’t done

Many pundits interpreted that leak as a death knell for the merger bid. Instead, the weekend of retrospection did the trick. But exactly how? MacKay reportedly came under renewed pressure from Tory luminaries, including Alberta’s Ralph Klein and, yes, Mulroney. Asked if those conversations took place, a MacKay spokesman would only observe that his boss shares Mulroney’s penchant for nearly continuous phone calls with a wide range of political contacts. The aide insisted, though, that MacKay was more moved by constituents and friends, including rugby buddies, back home in New Glasgow, N.S., who urged him to cut a

deal. Whatever voices got through to him, he decided to go for it. After the long weekend, he accepted Harper’s offer to give every riding equal delegate weight in a convention next March 19-21 to select a new leader— basically what the Tories wanted all along.

Having agreed to form a new Conservative Party of Canada, MacKay now has to campaign hard to get two-thirds of the old party members to ratify the deal by the planned Dec. 12 deadline. Harper should have a much easier time securing the necessary bare majority support of Alliance members.

If MacKay gets credit for taking a leap of faith, Harper emerges with his stature more enhanced. He softened up key Tories, drove the negotiations, and was tactically tough. While his reputation as a right-wing thinker was established years ago, many doubted his political savvy. Now, he looks like a player, not just a policy wonk. But can Harper hang on to lead the new party? If he seeks the job—a good bet—he’ll likely be up against name-brand rivals. MacKay, for one. Mike Harris, the former Ontario premier, for another. New Brunswick Premier Bernard Lord is among several more thought to be mulling over their chances. It could be a formidable field. But after so many pundits got it so wrong, declaring Harper’s merger drive doomed, far fewer will be inclined now to write off his leadership hopes too quickly. He’s shown a knack for seeing past distracting details to the wider field of play. I?1