Harper, Clark snipe before meeting

Clark calls Harper 'antagonistic' as the two party leaders prepare for unity talks Tuesday

Conservative Leader Joe Clark called the Canadian Alliance's new leader "antagonistic" on Sunday, raising doubts about the possibility of uniting the parties.

Clark and Stephen Harper are scheduled to meet in Ottawa on Tuesday, one day after Parliament resumes. Clark has requested the talks.

On Saturday, the Tory leader issued a statement to his MPs outlining his reasons for approaching the Alliance to see if the two groups can find a way to co-operate more, and form a viable alternative to the governing Liberals.

But during a closing speech at the Alliance national convention in Edmonton Saturday night, Harper telegraphed a clear message to Clark.

"The Canadian Alliance is strong, and the Canadian Alliance is here to stay," Harper said. He told the delegates that he has no intention of putting unity discussions ahead of his first priority rebuilding the Alliance before the next federal election.

The comments wowed the party faithful, who erupted in applause, but it worried the Tory leader.

"I thought it was an antagonistic speech," Clark said Sunday. "I am sorry, it was Stephen Harper dropping back to the fairly narrow, almost ideologic position that he's taken in the past."

But Harper was not retracting a centimetre, and disagreed with Clark's interpretation

"I don't view those kind of remarks as antagonistic," the Alliance leader said. "I view it as a statement of fact, but one that had to be made because of all the difficulties we've had over the past year, and doubts about our future."

'Unity dance' may be over

If Clark and Harper can't get along, the two parties won't move towards formal integration, according to Faron Ellis, a political scientist at the Lethbridge Community College.

"I think the prospects are very good that the unity dance stops, as of Tuesday," Ellis predicted. He said the balance of power has shifted from the Tories to the Alliance now that Harper has replaced Stockwell Day.

"Right now, the Canadian Alliance is dealing from a position of strength. Harper knows it. Clark knows it. And Harper is adamant that unity in the form of merger is not on the table."

Critics of Clark said he should have warmed up to the idea of unity more than a year ago, when Preston Manning was calling for the need to build a strong, small-c conservative coalition to defeat the Liberals.

But Tory strategist Goldy Hyder believe Harper will be making a mistake if he rejects Clark's overtures outright, risking a public backlash.