Stephen Harper's still in the game -- and looking to score

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Former prime minister Stephen Harper in 2013. Photo: michael_swan/Flickr

Eight years ago, almost to this very day, an informal gathering of 700 federal Conservative faithful was convened by then MPs Patrick Brown and Kellie Leitch at a barbecue held at the late Toronto mayor Rob Ford's home.

The surprise special guest? Then prime minister Stephen Harper, who told of his adventures on the water with his new fishing buddy, Rob Ford, before talking party business.

"We started cleaning up the left-wing mess federally in this area, Rob is doing it municipally and we've got to complete the hat trick and do it provincially as well," Harper, using a hockey metaphor, said to the cheering crowd.

The goal, of course, was to unseat the provincial Liberal government under Dalton McGuinty in the coming fall election and press three layers of conservative government on Ontario and, most especially, Toronto.

With his dream scenario in sight, Harper thanked the formidable Ford matriarch, Diane, for "giving us this great conservative political dynasty," made up of sons mayor Rob and then city councillor Doug Ford.

What a lineup.

Harper's ambitions for a conservative lock in Ontario might have happened had Rob not withdrawn from the 2014 mayoral race to fight his losing battle with cancer, leaving his council seat for his nephew Michael Ford to score and his mayoralty for his brother Doug to capture.

Doug failed, of course, and he's been wreaking havoc on Toronto ever since he became Ontario's premier in 2018.

Nobody would have learned what went on at that Ford barbecue -- except that at least one guest had the temerity to record the festivities and upload them on YouTube.

But, because Harper always kept a stranglehold on his messaging, the video was removed, only to pop up again, only to be re-vapourized, only to find its way back to the site again. You can watch it here -- for now, anyway.

As for the alliance between Harper and the Fords, it apparently continued.

During the 2015 federal election, which the Conservatives ultimately lost to the Trudeau Liberals, the Fords were enthusiastic supporters. Harper posed with the Ford clan while Doug fired up the crowds, using the same conservative talking points he's now spouting, and the same slogans also coming from both Alberta's recently elected conservative premier, Jason Kenney, and Harper's replacement at the helm of the federal Conservatives, Andrew Scheer.

It's easy to imagine that Harper is still writing the conservative playbook.

The clues are everywhere.

Since he quit Parliament, Harper has spoken at an event at U.S. President Donald Trump's Florida resort Mar-a-Lago, visited the White House, showed up at an Israeli college's $1,000-a-plate fundraiser, participated in the 2012 Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney's political retreat in Utah and guested on the right-wing Fox News.

In his lucrative tour of the rubber-chicken circuit, Harper did let slip during a speech at Stanford University that, "I could have turned the party into essentially a personal political vehicle if I'd wanted…"

The Liberals wasted no time jumping on the line, "It may be Andrew Scheer's smile, but it's still Stephen Harper's party."

The most visible clue to Harper's retaining remote control is his chairing the ironically named International Democratic Union (IDU). It's the Munich-based alliance of the world's centre-right to right-wing political parties, including the Republicans south of the border and the Conservative Party of Canada here, the reigning Likud Party in Israel and Hungary's anti-immigrant Fidesz.

Think of it as the anti-UN. Among the IDU's stated goals is to "protect our people from those who preach hate and plan to destroy our way of life." Which is their way of fending off the climate and economic migrant waves now and to come.

We saw this in their vociferous rejection of last year's Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration (GCM), an idealistic UN document which binds no nation to anything more than having in view the human upheavals expected as the Earth bakes.

No surprise that Scheer unleashed an almost daily stream of tweets with full-on outrage and half-baked half-truths attacking the pact as if it would allow hordes of foreigners to land on our pristine shores. But it wouldn't, no matter how often Israel's Benjamin Netanyahu, Hungary's Viktor Orbán, and other Eastern European leaders threatened it would.

Did Scheer take his cue from Harper and the IDU?

Of course, we know that Harper probably benched Ford until the October election. So now he's showing up mostly at Rotary and Lion's Club ribfests out where the only "news" media is the taxpayer-funded Ford-fluffing Ontario News Now.

Meanwhile, he is getting his rewards for staying out of the headlines and in the hinterland -- at least as much as possible, given that his spring budget continues to spring cuts to Ontario social services.

For example, just last month, Ford basked in Harper's good graces, sharing a stage with him when the Canada India Foundation presented the former prime minister with an award. Clearly they remain focused on the same goal.

The spectres of Harper and Ford are working for Liberal Prime Minister Trudeau, at least in Ontario, Quebec and the Atlantic provinces. Polls show that Scheer's numbers have fallen from almost certain victory to a statistical dead heat.

But don't count Harper out yet.

His great game continues, and he's still looking to score.

Antonia Zerbisias, former CBC-TV journalist and Toronto Star columnist, writes about society, media and politics.

Photo: michael_swan/Flickr

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