The Unstoppable Stephen Harper

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STEPHEN HARPER UNSTOPPABLE SARKOZY CAMERON
French President Nicolas Sarkozy, right, with British Prime Minister David Cameron and Prime Minster Stephen Harper at a conference on Libya at the Elysee Palace in Paris, Setp. 1, 2011. (AP/Michel Euler) | AP
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If you thought Stephen Harper reached the zenith of political power with his majority government win on May 2, think again.

Though the powers of a majority government are considerable, the emergence of a strong opposition under a charismatic leader in Jack Layton nevertheless posed a problem for the Conservative prime minister.

With the passing of Layton, however, the opposition is leaderless and circumstances both inside and outside Ottawa are fracturing the opposition even further.

Still shaken by the death of their leader, the New Democrats are entering into a leadership contest that is already delineating the divisions between the party’s left wing and its more moderate elements, as well as between its Quebec caucus and its base outside of the province.

Disagreements over what share of the vote to give organized labour and whether to hold the leadership convention later rather than sooner (in part to give the Quebec wing of the party time to increase its paltry membership numbers) have already popped up.
The two leading candidates to replace Jack Layton, Thomas Mulcair and Brian Topp, are at opposite sides of this debate.

For Stephen Harper, this means the New Democrats will likely be focused more on their own affairs than on mounting a unified opposition, at least until the spring. Whether the party will come out of the leadership race in one piece remains to be seen.

This passes the baton to the Liberal Party, reduced to 34 MPs in the House of Commons. Though interim leader Bob Rae has the experience and the profile to keep the party in the public’s eyes, and he may well step into the void as the unofficial voice of opposition while the NDP chooses its next leader, he holds the job only temporarily. A leadership race likely to be held in 2013 means the Liberals, too, will be looking inward for a good portion of Harper’s tenure as Prime Minister. And until the Liberals choose their next leader, Rae can only take the party so far.

Then there is the Bloc Québécois, which lost its official party status in the general election. While it is too small to cause much trouble for the Conservatives, it still does have a base of support in the province that can be used to raise the ire of Quebecers against the federal government. But its voice is severely diminished.

For example, the appointment of Angelo Persichilli as the Prime Minister’s director of communications, a former journalist and columnist who does not speak French and has written critically about Quebec’s influence in Ottawa, would have been cause célèbre for the Bloc under Duceppe. Instead, the voice which spoke with most authority against Persichilli’s nomination was likely Pierre Moreau, intergovernmental affairs minister in Jean Charest’s government.

With the PQ in turmoil, the sovereignty movement tearing itself apart, and no figure of any real stature willing to take on the job as leader, the Bloc is in no position to strongly oppose the government.

Provincially, Ontarians may choose as their next premier a Harper ally in Tim Hudak. British Columbians have a conservative-friendly leader in Christy Clark, who’s preoccupied with keeping her government together after the HST referendum. Jean Charest has to worry about the emergence of François Legault’s new party (though the Quebec premier is no stranger to going after the federal government to bolster his own poll numbers).

All of this means that Stephen Harper, ensconced in the comfort of a majority government, can expect little opposition to his agenda inside Ottawa and out.

Éric Grenier taps The Pulse of federal and regional politics for Huffington Post Canada readers on Tuesdays and Fridays. Grenier is the author of ThreeHundredEight.com, covering Canadian politics, polls and electoral projections.