NATIONAL

HARPER'S 12

IN THE PM’S INNER CIRCLE, THERE’S NO ROOM FOR SENTIMENT OR TOLERANCE FOR FAILURE. MACLEAN’S LOOKS AT WHO’S IN, WHO’S OUT, AND WHO HAS REAL POWER IN OTTAWA.

JOHN GEDDES February 4 2008
NATIONAL

HARPER'S 12

IN THE PM’S INNER CIRCLE, THERE’S NO ROOM FOR SENTIMENT OR TOLERANCE FOR FAILURE. MACLEAN’S LOOKS AT WHO’S IN, WHO’S OUT, AND WHO HAS REAL POWER IN OTTAWA.

JOHN GEDDES February 4 2008

HARPER'S 12

IN THE PM’S INNER CIRCLE, THERE’S NO ROOM FOR SENTIMENT OR TOLERANCE FOR FAILURE. MACLEAN’S LOOKS AT WHO’S IN, WHO’S OUT, AND WHO HAS REAL POWER IN OTTAWA.

NATIONAL

JOHN GEDDES

The man to consider first, in figuring out which players matter most in Stephen Harper’s inner circle, might be one who doesn’t quite rate. About a year ago, John Weissenberger, widely considered the Prime Minister’s closest friend for the past two decades, left his job as a geologist in Calgary and moved to Ottawa to become chief of staff to Citizenship and Immigration Minister Diane Finley. Critics pounced, charging that Harper, who had previously been known for valuing talent in his administration over close personal relationships, was lapsing into cronyism.

Yet in a series of interviews with senior Conservatives—some close to Harper, and others with enough distance to bring a touch of added objectivity—Weissenberger’s name was never spontaneously raised in conversations about who has real clout. When asked about him, most assumed the Prime Minister and his old pal, who has worked on all his election and leadership campaigns, talk often. But none ventured to suggest that Weissenberger has shown enough detectable impact to vault him into the ranks of what we’re calling “Harper’s 12.”

This is, like a certain series of hit movies, something of a franchise for Maclean’s. Two years ago, we premiered the ensemble feature “Harper’s ll,” shortly after the Conservatives won power, introducing a cast of potential stars around the novice Prime Minister. The aim was to identify which politicians in front of the cameras, and which aides behind the scenes, had the most potent blend of apparent power and sufficient standing with Harper to be sure about exercising it.

Back in early 2006, the most striking thing about Harper’s key supporting cast members was that not one of them was an old, close confidant of the PM. Advisers like Tom

Flanagan and Ken Boessenkool, who had been associated with him for many years, were noticeably absent from his new Prime Minister’s Office. Promising MPs who had appeared to bond with Harper in opposition, like B.C.’s James Moore and Ontario’s Scott Reid, were shut out of cabinet.

As the Weissenberger story suggests, rising in Harper’s retinue still depends remarkably little on sentimental factors. There are no long-time loyal retainers, the role Eddie Goldenberg played for Jean Chétien. No clubby admirers who devoted the best years of their lives to him, like the tight-knit Paul Martin posse. Searching for a precise common denominator in a diverse group like Harper’s 12 is pointless. But they do share this broad attribute: these are not improvisers or hunch-players. In a government defined by its tightly wound discipline, playing at the top level means sticking to a plan, or,

better yet, having a strong hand in devising it in the first place.

And when a plan falls apart, insiders tend to fall with it. Rona Ambrose easily made the Harper’s 11 list, a bright rising star when Harper named her his first environment minister. But Ambrose’s global warming plan was widely panned, and she was shuffled off to Intergovernmental Affairs, where she promptly disappeared from sight.

An uncertain plan, under unclear leadership, is almost as bad as a plan gone awry. Last time, we identified two Quebecers to watch: Maxime Bernier, then industry minister and now foreign minister, and Public Works Minister Michael Fortier. Two years later, Tory insiders debate to no real conclusion about whether Bernier or Fortier, or perhaps Labour Minister Jean-Pierre Blackburn or Transport Minister Lawrence Cannon, has the key role when it comes to deliv-

ering more seats in the province. As well, no dominant Tory campaign official for Quebec has emerged. “Frankly, the Quebec picture is a bit of a mess,” said a Conservative war-room veteran. Perhaps individual Quebec Tories look underwhelming in part because Harper is looking past them to a figure outside the party: Action démocratique du Québec Leader Mario Dumont. Yet few see Dumont orbiting closely enough around Harper to consider him a true innercircle member.

Not all those who fell off the list underperformed. Senator Marjory LeBreton is still

highly respected by Harper’s team, but her key role as a sage communicator is surely hampered by her old, close relationship with Brian Mulroney, now that the Karlheinz Schreiber saga’s revival has demoted the former prime minister from Tory icon to outcast. Mark Cameron, Harper’s policy director, is no less an insider two years on, but was edged out by others, like fellow Prime Minister’s Office aide Bruce Carson, whose stature solidified as the Tories settled into running the country.

Time and circumstance have lifted others. The past two years have seen international affairs playing a far bigger role in shaping and shading Harper’s prime ministership than anyone planned for, so it should come as no surprise that his foreign and defence adviser, Susan Cartwright, becomes the second mandarin, after the inevitable clerk of the Privy Council, to slip discreetly into the pre-emi-

nent dozen. Two years ago, Doug Finley, the Tory campaign director, wasn’t the man of the hour. He’d just done his job, and extraordinarily well, but the Conservatives were preparing to rule, not run. Now, they are governing, but bracing to campaign the split second their already surprisingly long-lived minority is felled, making Finley impossible to overlook for anyone looking ahead.

Still, the connection for Harper’s team between governing now and campaigning soon is not quite so clear as it was two years ago. Back in early 2006, they knew their job was to briskly march through a short list of

priorities—trim the GST, pass government ethics legislation, enact some anti-crime measures—to give their party a saleable record to run on in the election they expected any day after the Liberals chose a new leader. Instead, they govern on. And on. It would take all three opposition parties in the House to defeat Harper’s minority. The stars might align that way—over a budget? over Afghanistan?—but there’s no way to credibly predict when.

So Harper’s team has shifted to playing a longer game, even as they keep a wary eye on the chance of hitting the hustings on short notice. Last fall’s Throne Speech laid out plans that mostly won’t yield quick results. The economic update that followed offered broad-based tax relief designed to boost longterm competitiveness, a distinct change from the previous two budgets’ niche tax cuts tailored for an imminent campaign. Top Tories talk less obsessively about how this or that targeted measure will fly with voters, more about how conveying solid competence builds credibility. So does their boss. “This government’s overall management of the country and the public agenda is good,” Harper told Maclean’s recently, “and it’s where the public wants us to go.”

It’s a rather bland boast, but a very broad one, too. Behind it policy work slowly unfolds on weighty files, from economic competitiveness to military procurement. Shifting from short-hop to longer-haul thinking is hard to fault, but polls show the Tories stalled at minority support levels. Two years after their nearly, flawless campaign won them power, an unexpected question must be asked about Harper and his gang. They might have shown they can run a serious government, but has that brought them any closer to winning a majority?

THERE ARE NO LONG-TIME LOYALISTS OR CLUBBY ADMIRERS. AND THEY AREN’T IMPROVISERS, OR HUNCH PLAYERS.