Stephen Harper and his government are in trouble. Charges of concealing the real costs of the F-35 fighter jets, confirmed by the auditor general, a Harper appointee, are not going away, despite an Easter parliamentary recess. These $10 billion in hidden costs were revealed by the parliamentary budget officer (an innovation of the Harper government) prior to the May 2, 2011 election, and led to the government being found in contempt of parliament, provoking a non-confidence motion, and the May election.

Elections Canada is investigating charges of voter interference in over 200 ridings in the last election. Non-Conservative supporters were falsely informed their polling stations had been moved.

Contrary to government claims, the recent federal budget clearly reduces public services, while weakening food inspection, environmental safeguards, border security, pure research, information on welfare, and foreign aid, amongst other programs. Economists see the budget killing jobs and threatening economic recovery. The retirement age is being pushed back by two years, without substantial evidence being given for the change. Ottawa, and the entire national capital region, are going to be particularly hard hit by spending and personnel cutbacks.

The knives Stephen Harper should fear the most are those of his fellow Conservatives (seven of them in the national capital region). As public support for the Harper regime recedes, party esteem for the leader will erode, rivals will step forward anxious to question policy direction, promote their own ambitions and conspire to see Harper replaced as prime minister by one of their number.

The party that wins the most votes in the most ridings has first claim on government because it holds the largest number of seats in the House of Commons, not because it has one leader rather than another. Stephen Harper could be replaced by James Flaherty, and the Conservatives would continue as government under the new leader.

A party becomes government because of the legal authority conferred upon it by a summons to its leader from the Governor General to Rideau Hall. But the ability to govern depends on the legitimacy conferred by the electorate.

By virtue of a parliamentary majority, a party has a legal right to form a government. The leader claims a legitimate right to form a cabinet and govern, thanks to voting support for his or her party from the public. It is this legitimacy derived from the public that gives a government legality.

Whatever role the personal appeal of the leader may play in the election result, the party is the recipient of the mandate from the people. In a democratic society, no party leader, no office holder, and no government can survive for long without maintaining the public support which alone establishes legitimacy.

When a prime minister becomes supremely unpopular with the public, as happened with Brian Mulroney for example, the urge to replace the leader grows apace. Mulroney eventually had to give way, and his party chose Kim Campbell over Jean Charest. The change in leadership did not help Conservative party fortunes, which in the follow-up election lost all but two seats.

The Harper Conservatives may think they have a legal right to govern as they please, and they certainly act as though the opposition parties have to accept what Conservatives decide: political reality suggests otherwise.

While the prime minister has the legal right to the office, the exercise of power can lead to loss of public support, and a weakening of the legitimacy the leader needs to govern.

This loss of support eventually shows up in public opinion polls, which are closely followed by all political parties, as well as observers of the political process. Backbench members of parliament have direct ways of assessing party performance, and no prime minister can persistently ignore caucus grumblings.

The opposition parties are at a serious disadvantage in the battle to sway public opinion. But they have access to parliament, and the ability to address Canadians. This week, prior to the re-opening of parliament next week, the NDP and the Liberals are pressuring the government to convene the public accounts committee to hear from the Auditor General, and investigate what cabinet was not telling parliament or the Canadian public about the cost of the F-35 jets.

Next week the opposition parties will be looking for ways to further expose the unwillingness of the government to respect the electoral laws, or co-operate with Elections Canada in its investigation of electoral fraud.

As the impact of the budget becomes better known, citizens’ groups will be organizing to make their views known to parliamentarians. Support from seniors’ groups is key to Conservative fortunes, and inadequacy of public pensions is likely to attract attention from the opposition.

The Conservatives may think they can legally shut down their opponents, but the survival of the Conservative government requires they maintain public support for their actions. Otherwise, Harper and his regime will lose the only legitimacy they possess.

Duncan Cameron is the president of rabble.ca and writes a weekly column on politics and current affairs.