Tories glad Harper’s back in lime­light – as are Lib­er­als

Re-emer­gence poses dilemma for Scheer

Ottawa Citizen - - CANADA - Jan­ice Dick­son

OT­TAWA • Sud­denly, Stephen Harper is turn­ing up ev­ery­where.

In the past cou­ple of weeks, he’s made head­lines for writ­ing a book, telling an Amer­i­can au­di­ence in Fe­bru­ary he could still “eas­ily” lead the Con­ser­va­tive Party and for adding his name to a full-page ad in the New York Times prais­ing Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s with­drawal from the nu­clear deal with Iran.

On Mon­day, he was in Mon­treal to mark Is­rael’s 70th birth­day and Tues­day he tweeted he was pleased to be back in “la Belle Prov­ince,” adding it was great to see one-time col­leagues in­clud­ing for­mer Con­ser­va­tive MPs De­nis Lebel and Chris­tian Par­adis and Con­ser­va­tive Sen. Leo Housakos.

Harper’s re-emer­gence bodes well for the Lib­er­als’ strat­egy to brand the Op­po­si­tion as “Harper Con­ser­va­tives.”

For their part, the Con­ser­va­tives seem to be say­ing: Bring it on. They’re not hes­i­tat­ing to em­brace their in­tro­verted for­mer leader who left the party with 99 seats and mixed emo­tions.

In some parts of the coun­try, there is still an­tipa­thy towards Harper, and the Lib­er­als are try­ing to stoke those neg­a­tive opin­ions, said Tim Pow­ers, a Con­ser­va­tive strate­gist and vice-chair­man of Summa Strate­gies.

On the other hand, “hard­core Con­ser­va­tives will love it,” he said.

Pow­ers said the Lib­eral strat­egy “makes sense” be­cause Harper is vis­i­ble. Whether that’s de­lib­er­ate or not, it might help the Lib­er­als a lit­tle bit.

Still, Scheer “can’t be look­ing over his shoul­der for the ghost of Stephen Harper,” he added.

While Harper’s re-emer­gence seems to be co­in­cid­ing with the Lib­eral brand­ing ex­er­cise, he’s been ac­tive in global commentary and events since leav­ing of­fice, said Rachel Cur­ran, Harper’s for­mer di­rec­tor of pol­icy who cur­rently works as a se­nior as­so­ciate with Harper and As­so­ciates Con­sult­ing.

Cur­ran said the Lib­eral at­tempt to paint Scheer and Harper with the same brush won’t hurt the Con­ser­va­tives be­cause Harper left the party in a strong po­si­tion. She said if Scheer is able to build on that in 2019, the party will be in good shape.

As for whether Harper is loom­ing over Scheer, Cur­ran said there’s room for both of them.

“I don’t think Stephen Harper has to dis­ap­pear en­tirely to make room for An­drew Scheer. Sim­i­larly, I think An­drew Scheer has done a good job at putting his stamp on the party and devel­op­ing his own pol­icy di­rec­tion cer­tainly with­out any help from Mr. Harper.”

Cur­ran said when the Lib­er­als la­bel Scheer’s party as “Harper Con­ser­va­tives” it’s be­cause they want to re-fight the 2015 elec­tion.

“Given the num­ber of times they’re now re­fer­ring to Stephen Harper in ques­tion pe­riod and else­where, it’s clearly a strate­gic de­ci­sion.”

Many Con­ser­va­tives al­lege the Lib­er­als have polling num­bers that show they need to at­tract or keep vot­ers who could be tempted to vote NDP — and that’s what is mo­ti­vat­ing the strat­egy.

Since the Lib­eral con­ven­tion in April, Prime Min­is­ter Justin Trudeau and Lib­eral MPs fol­low­ing his lead have been per­sis­tent in link­ing Scheer and Harper as cut from the same cloth.

“And if there’s one thing — and there may be only one thing — we’ve learned about the Con­ser­va­tive party un­der Mr. Scheer’s lead­er­ship, it’s this: It may be An­drew Scheer’s smile. But it’s still Stephen Harper’s party,” Trudeau said at the con­ven­tion in Hal­i­fax.

At the same time, Harper has seemed to be “pop­ping his head out of the go­pher hole” as long-time Lib­eral Su­san Smith, co-founder of Bluesky Strat­egy Group, de­scribes his re-emer­gence.

Smith called Harper’s reemer­gence a “tre­men­dous chal­lenge” for Scheer, who has yet to put an im­print on the party and has not dis­tanced him­self from the Harper years. “The more Harper speaks, the worse it is for Scheer.”

If Scheer dis­tances him­self from Harper, he risks alien­at­ing peo­ple in his party who like Harper, but if he fully em­braces his old boss, it may alien­ate mod­er­ates the party hopes to at­tract, Smith said.

“In terms of the Lib­er­als work­ing on that nar­ra­tive, I ac­tu­ally think that works. In 2015, vot­ers said, ’No thank you’ to Stephen Harper, so if the op­tion be­ing pre­sented is Harper-lite or Stephen Harper with a smile, I think the odds are high they’ll likely say ‘No thank you’ yet again,” said Smith.

JOSE LUIS MAGANA / THE CANA­DIAN PRESS FILES

For­mer PM Stephen Harper made head­lines re­cently by sup­port­ing Don­ald Trump on the Iran nu­clear deal.

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