One month from now, the fate of Stephen Harper’s government will be determined by a one person electorate consisting of Michael Ignatieff.
There are three possible assumptions Harper can make about how he is doing as he campaigns for this all important vote: he can assume that nothing he can do will win the vote; he can conclude that he has won the vote already and that he is in no danger of losing it; or he can think that the vote is still his to win or lose.
On the assumption that everything Harper does is diabolically clever, there are some out there who think he is scheming to have his government defeated so that the Liberal-NDP coalition can take power, mess up and open the door to a massive Conservative majority in the next election. In my opinion, that idea is right up there with the theory that the Austrian Crown Prince Franz Ferdinand conspired to trigger World War 1 in 1914 by having himself assassinated.
Harper knows that if his government is defeated and the coalition assumes office, a vicious civil war will break out in his own party and that plotters and schemers from Jim Prentice to Peter MacKay will be out for his job.
If we assume that Harper’s is campaigning for the Ignatieff vote, how well is he doing?
Appointing the 18 Senators was dumb, but not likely fatal. It does give Ignatieff another reason to bring the government down if he is so inclined, but it won’t prove decisive.
Keeping the remarkably incompetent Jim Flaherty in his post could prove fatal. One sure sign that Harper is throwing everything into winning the vote of the one-man electorate would be a decision to drop Flaherty from Finance and announce that Jim Prentice will replace him. Presenting Ignatieff with Flaherty’s head on a platter would be seen as a deeply meaningful gesture, much prized in this sort of blood sport. And appointing Prentice as his replacement would be diabolically clever. Not only is Prentice widely regarded as a Conservative who can actually read and write, the Finance portfolio has traditionally been a poisoned chalice, the recipient of which is thwarted in reaching the top job. (Jean Chretien and Paul Martin were exceptions, but nobody took Chretien seriously as Finance Minister and look what happened to Martin.)
If Harper does decide to behead Flaherty, he’ll likely do it in the first week of January, a slow news time in Ottawa. That would allow the Globe and Mail, the At Issue Panel and other worthies to beseech Ignatieff to abandon the coalition with Red Jack and spare Stephen Harper.
The final act in the drama will come with the Conservative budget, replete with the kind of stimulus most sought by the government’s panel of billionaire economic advisors.
If Harper’s fate remains to be determined by the one-man electorate, Ignatieff’s position is equally uncomfortable. Should he cast his vote for the Conservative government, his power will immediately shrink to the vanishing point. (I’ll avoid phallus metaphors here.) Harper will swell to his former glory and Ignatieff’s great moment will have passed.
As Ignatieff contemplates how to cast his vote, he will be pondering whether the time has arrived to bring down Harper, as he suggested he would when he applied his signature to the document listing the MPs who no longer had confidence in the government. He might consider the advice of Niccolo Machiavelli: "The wise man does at once what the fool does finally."