Prime Minister Stephen Harper advised NDP Leader Jack Layton during the 2008 election campaign that he should "bury [Stéphane] Dion and start talking about himself as the leader of the opposition," says a former Harper aide in a new book.
The story is related by Bruce Carson in a book called 14 Days: Making the Conservative Movement in Canada.
Carson says Harper reminded Layton that the NDP was either tied or slightly ahead of the Liberals in the polls and Layton's leadership numbers were significantly better than Dion's, who was then Opposition leader.
"Layton demurred and started talking about a coalition with the Grits," Carson writes.
After the 2008 election, Layton did form a coalition with Dion's Liberals, supported by the Bloc Québécois, that was sparked by Harper's decision to end the political party vote subsidies, a move Carson calls "a gross political miscalculation" that "defied logic."
Debate prep with Harper
Carson describes the debate preparation for the 2008 election that took place over two days at Harrington Lake, the prime minister's summer residence.
Intense preparation was necessary because this time there was a wild card — the addition of Green Party Leader Elizabeth May, who did not at the time have a seat in the House of Commons. "One wrong move with May and all of this effort [in closing the gender gap with female voters] could go down the drain," Carson writes.
Carson describes Harper taking lessons in how to handle May's presence. Line Maheux, a communications specialist, play-acted May, and Harper was instructed how to react if May were to put her hand on his arm during the debate.
Harper was also coached to take a "more low-key" tone with May than with Layton, Dion and BQ Leader Gilles Duceppe so as to not be seen on TV as a bully.
The Dion 'do-over'
One of the stranger accounts in the book is about Dion's disastrous interview with Steve Murphy, host of CTV Atlantic's 6 p.m. newscast. On Oct. 9, in the last week of the campaign, Dion became confused by a question from Murphy.
But Carson makes no mention of Senator Mike Duffy's role in the Dion "do-over" interview.
In journalist Dan Leger's book Duffy, the first question-and-answer session between Dion and Murphy is reproduced:
Murphy: If you were prime minister now, what would you have done about the economy and this crisis that Mr. Harper has not done?
Dion: If I would have been prime minister two and a half years ago?
Murphy: If you were prime minister right now?
Dion: Right now?
Murphy: And had been for the past two weeks.
The question was repeated several times as Dion struggled to make sense of it.
In his book, Carson recalls that the campaign team, including Harper, gathered in front of a hotel room TV to watch the interview. "Contrary to what the commentators have said, we did not think the question was difficult or full of tricky verb tenses," he writes.
What Carson does not mention is that the version of the interview with the repeated questions was aired on Mike Duffy Live, Duffy's daily national political talk show, with Duffy providing scathing commentary.
Over a month later Duffy was named to the Senate.
Carson makes no mention of Duffy's Senate nomination, but says of the tape, "The beauty of having our own plane, and the constant attention of the media travelling on it, meant ready access to the airwaves — we took advantage of it, I believe not unfairly."
He continues, "Harper made it abundantly clear that leading a G8 country you don't get a chance for do-overs."
Carson gives an entertaining picture of Harper's first few cabinet shuffles, starting with the story of an attempt to move Jim Flaherty from Finance to Industry, and Flaherty's dramatic refusal to be budged.
He also relates how Harper decided Rona Ambrose was "spending too much time doing other things than looking at her [Environment] portfolio.
"He [Harper] couldn't understand the media's interest in the fitness regime of this cabinet minister, and why she would take time away from work to discuss such 'trivial matters' with the media," Carson writes.
The other problem was Vic Toews in the Justice portfolio, says Carson, adding that Toews scared people when he talked of jailing 12- and 13-year olds.
"The prime minister was quite tired of morning meetings where the main topic was Vic Toews going off message," he writes.
At no point in his book does Carson make any mention of his own troubles. He faces charges of illegal lobbying and influence peddling stemming from his work after leaving the Prime Minister's Office.