I was communicating lately with another blogger whose work I greatly appreciate about the way the mood has changed in the country in recent weeks. I have found in my own experience, as well as in my historical reading, that even significant political changes occur in a kind of mysterious moment during which the mood changes and with the change of mood significant changes follow as though unstoppable. It happened, I believe, at the moment of the Kent State massacre. It happened during the famous tennis court oath in the opening days of the French Revolution. In recent years it happened to the government of John Major in England when, less than a year into their mandate, chancellor Norman Lamont was forced to go back on a longstanding promise and take England out of the Exchange Rate Mechanism, which was not only a policy reversal, but it was one that cost the government many millions of wasted Pounds in what was a total failure. Something tips the scale of people's feelings and Fortuna's wheel suddenly shifts directions.
I am not the only one who noticed the change in mood in Canada that has taken place over the past couple of weeks. I said for a long time that what allowed Stephen Harper to appear to be a kind of Teflon-man for so long was largely the fact that he was a minority PM. This status not only kept his very worst instincts in check, but it also created the illusion that he was not really in complete control so that he could effectively deflect blame for many things that might otherwise have hurt him. The minority status also allowed the government to function in a continual campaign mode with a certain degree of justification. I am absolutely certain that if Harper had had a majority from the beginning he would have been universally despised by the end of his first four years because he would have gone in with his ego full and nothing would have stopped him. But years of minority government taught him the value of more subtlety and caution. However, having said that, Harper's ego has also prevented him from understanding that, as sometimes happens with politicians, it is generally historical chance that has put him in power rather than significant support for his political ideology. And this fact is going to make it difficult for Harper to continue his strange brand of stealthy ideological change. The game has changed and I am not sure that Harper can change sufficiently with it to avoid a seismic political change.
As any careful observer has surely noted, the change is already underway. The way in which Harper is being talked about in the media and on blogs has shifted significantly in only a few weeks. Suddenly people are focusing on Harper as a kind ideological bull in a china-shop who now has absolute power to do anything his wants. As the economic difficulties begin to be drawn out and become more structural, people are already talking about Harper's failure to respond to people's needs. For years now Harper has been selling a narrative of giving more money to corporations which will supposedly trickle down to average people. But with the sudden departure of Caterpillar from Ontario people's attention is suddenly on the 'trickle-down" model that Harper has been selling people for the past few years. Just today the Ottawa Citizen's Saturday headline reads "The World According to Stephen Harper." Newspapers that only a short time ago demonstrated almost unqualified support for Harper are changing their language. Journalists are talking about the "risks" that Harper is willing to take with an attack on Pensions and there are mainstream sources actually talking about the idea of a "manufactured crisis." Meanwhile more than one Conservative MP is talking about the caucus being too controlling and the need to have more freedom to speak. Political parties that have spent years in the wilderness often go through a period of extreme control. But politics, like all other fields, suffers from the effects of entropy and eventually the center doesn't hold.
I don't know to what degree the general mood has shifted and to what degree it is his status as a majority PM that has apparently changed Harper's fortunes. But there is no question in my mind that things are different. The central pillar of Harper's ability to stay in power has been stealth and diversion. His status as a minority leader allowed him to exercise this technique quite effectively, particularly at a time when the opposition was in disarray. But this pillar is gone now. Remember the episode of Seinfeld in which George is dating a girl who has a male roommate and because of his insecurity he manages to convince her to kick the roommate out? Jerry says to George "he was shouldering half the burden, now you are the man and that is not a very good role for you." This, in a sense, is what has happened to Harper and the Conservative Party. The disarray of the opposition and the status of a minority were shouldering half the burden for Harper and his party. But the attention will now be focused much more on Harper and the strategy of diversion and stealth will be significantly more difficult to undertake effectively.
These events also explain, I think, the fall of the NDP in Quebec. I suspect that many people in Quebec are starting to feel the need to get rid of Harper is more important than which particular party they vote for and they are now looking around at their options.
There is a new game in town and though a week might be a lifetime in politics, parties in Western democracies seldom stay in power long without being very flexible, and flexibility is not something that Harper has ever been accused of.