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Toronto Star, Saturday, May 21, 2005

'Dump Harper' bid on the rise

NB: This article is factually incorrect. David Orchard is not part of a 'dump Harper' movement — see his letter to the Toronto Star, May 25, 2005
By Bob Hepburn

Slowly, quietly, a "Dump Stephen Harper" movement is emerging in small pockets of the Conservative fold, and the Tory leader can ignore it only at the risk of his political future.

Harper's performance over the past five weeks — taking the Tories from a healthy lead in the polls to forcing an ill-fated parliamentary showdown with Paul Martin and now once again trailing the Liberals in public opinion — has only fuelled this stealth effort to oust him as party leader.

Sound crazy?

Maybe, but the signs are growing — and there's a history within the conservative wing of Canadian politics of parties slaying their own.

Think back to the early 1980s.

Back then, Joe Clark was the embattled leader of the Progressive Conservative party. His minority government had fallen in late 1979 on a non-confidence motion, and he subsequently led the Tories to defeat in the 1980 election that saw the return of Pierre Trudeau and the Liberals to power.

Clark had enemies within the party, none bigger than Brian Mulroney.

Mulroney had lost the 1976 leadership race to Clark, but he never gave up. And neither did his cronies.

Every morning, some of them held court in the West Block cafeteria on Parliament Hill. Any member of the Ottawa press gallery could stroll over to the Hill, get some bacon-and-eggs, sit down and listen to Mulroney's pals stab Clark in the back, telling stories and spreading gossip that always put their party leader in a bad light.

Among the Mulroney cronies at the breakfast table were Nova Scotia MP Bob Coates, who became Mulroney's first defence minister in 1985, Pat MacAdam, a long-time Tory aide whom Mulroney rewarded with a plum job at the Canadian High Commission in London, and Nova Scotia MP Elmer MacKay. Yes, the daddy of Tory MP Peter MacKay, and who got his prize when he was named solicitor-general.

Toronto lawyer and Mulroney pal Sam Wakim was another player working behind the scenes against Clark.

To a person, myself included, the Ottawa press gang dismissed the "breakfast club" as inconsequential. We also dismissed as nonsense their informal "Dump Joe" movement.

But in 1983, the "Dump Joe" forces won. Clark wound up with the infamous 67-per-cent leadership review vote, which he said was not enough, and so called for a leadership race, which he lost to Mulroney.

History is important because the "Dump Harper" bid is growing.

One of the driving forces is Sinclair Stevens, the former Conservative cabinet minister who along with other "Red Tories" fought bitterly against the 2003-04 merger of the Canadian Alliance (née Reform party) and the Progressive Conservatives.

Another key player is David Orchard, who ran for the Progressive Conservative leadership and is still angry with Peter MacKay for merging the party with the Alliance headed by Harper.

Now, it's easy and convenient to dismiss both Stevens and Orchard as bitter guys out of step with politics in Ottawa in the year 2005.

Easy, but too simplistic.

The "Dump Harper" crowd thinks the media focus this week should have been on their leader instead of Belinda Stronach and "heartbroken" boyfriend MacKay and Paul Martin's future.

As they work the phones, the group says that under Harper the Tories remain a western-based party that is seen as mean-spirited, as being angry at Central Canada, and as being too right wing to appeal to urban voters in the East. They are deeply distressed that moderates such as Stronach, and before her Scott Brison and Keith Martin, have left to join the Liberals.

To bolster their argument, they point to a column by David Asper, chairman of the National Post, considered the media voice of the Conservative party.

"Harper has damaged the Conservative brand far more than he seems to realize," Asper wrote. "Through miscue after miscue, the party has shone a light on the alienation felt by moderates such as Ms Stronach."

Asper suggests Harper has failed to make inroads into Ontario and Quebec and that the party is following a pro-life, anti-gay-marriage agenda that alienates "progressive" Conservatives.

"Even many of his supporters will ask themselves whether he (Harper) is a man they want to become prime minister," Asper said in the column.

As one observer said, such tough words "makes one wonder what media support Harper has left — beyond the Ottawa press gallery."

Or wonder just how strong the "Dump Harper" movement really is.

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