It's Stephen Harper's party — and he'll do what he wants to

The Conservative Party will need to evolve, but Stephen Harper still defines it as the party leadership race heats up, writes Kory Teneycke.

Conservative Party will need to evolve, but Harper still defines it as leadership race heats up

Stephen Harper basks in confetti after winning a second minority government on Oct. 14, 2008, in Calgary. (Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press)

This column is an opinion by Kory Teneycke, a former director of communications for prime minister Stephen Harper, manager of the recent Ontario PC Party campaign, and currently a partner at Rubicon Strategy. Teneycke has declared he will remain neutral in the federal Conservative leadership campaign and has recused himself from work Rubicon is providing for the MacKay campaign. For more information about CBC's Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

Even five years after his defeat, the presence of Stephen Harper still defines the Conservative Party of Canada.

In any other party it would be a bit odd for a past leader to be so dominant in the race to replace his successor's successor. But not in this one.

Only 17 years ago, it was a much younger, more ideologically strident Stephen Harper who forged a new party from the shattered pieces of the PC Party (which had become an Atlantic Canadian regional rump) and the Canadian Alliance (Preston Manning's failed effort to rebrand the Reform Party).

As a Reform Party staffer and later as a Member of Parliament, Harper had always been a hardliner. Critical of Manning for his lack of conservatism and dismissive of those advocating the need for the two right-of-centre parties to merge.

In running for the Canadian Alliance leadership, he was full of bravado about the ability of the CA to best the PC Party electorally.

But in what would become a telling sign of his future approach to governing (best described as pragmatic, conservative incrementalism), in 2003 Harper adjusted course and engineered the formation of the Conservative Party of Canada.

On matters of party discipline, Harper would sometimes in half-jest quote Louis XIV: "l'etat c'est moi" (I am the state). Harper wasn't just the first leader for the first half of its existence, he was the Party. And everybody knew it.

Former Prime Minister Stephen Harper, seen here at a Washington conference in March 2017, has always been a conservative hardliner. (Jose Luis Magana/The Associated Press)

Even in departure he continued to maintain a low-profile but powerful role as a director of the Conservative Fund – the body that holds the purse strings for party operations and campaigns.

His recent departure from the Fund generated headlines and speculation.

Some "unnamed sources" have alleged this was to free him to attack potential leadership candidate Jean Charest. It is unlikely that was ever true, but given Charest's decision to not enter the race, it clearly is no longer a motivation.

Jean Charest announced this week that he won't run for the federal Conservative Party leadership. (Ivanhoe Demers/Radio-Canada)

Even if Charest had entered the leadership he would have had to kiss the ring of Harper's legacy, and adopt positions similar to those of Harper on a range of issues — including conservative cultural issues such as gun control.

Harper doesn't need to campaign for or against anyone in the party leadership race. Every candidate will be attempting to claim some degree of ownership or continuance of the Harper record, and quietly intimating that they have his private approval.

There is no path to victory running against Harper's legacy.

The decision to leave the fund is more likely, as National Post columnist John Ivison suggested, an effort to sidestep Andrew Scheer's expense account scandal – of which private school funding is rumoured to be only the tip of the iceberg.

Harper has a near anaphylactic intolerance for expense account abuse.

While he did get criticism for charging his personal stylist to the Party, Harper's legacy governing is one of transparency. His reforms brought in pro-active disclosure of expenses for cabinet ministers and their staff. And back in Reform Party days he was the alleged source for blowing the whistle on then Reform Party Leader Preston Manning's use of party funds to fix his teeth and purchase bespoke suits.

Preston Manning glances at a Reform Party of Canada sign during a news conference in Ottawa on Nov. 27, 1991. (Ron Poling/Canadian Press)

Regardless the reasons for his departure from the Fund, it makes no difference. It is still Harper's party.

It is the electoral coalition that he built that is the foundation of the party – not just nationally, but in provinces like Ontario as well.

Fundraising letters sent on behalf of the party bring in the most money when sent under his name. Most telling, numerous polls demonstrate Harper continues to be the most popular potential leader for the Conservative Party – by far. He would easily achieve a first-ballot victory if he chose to enter the race (which I predict he won't).

Of course, the Conservative Party will need to evolve. It was a mistake for the Scheer campaign to run on a mildly updated version of the Harper 2015 platform.

But at its core, the conservative electoral coalition is quite strong. And that is thanks to Stephen Harper.


Kory Teneycke is a former director of communications for prime minister Stephen Harper. He managed the recent Ontario PC Party Campaign, and is a partner at Rubicon Strategy.