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Can Harper's Government Really Bounce Back From 2013?

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STEPHEN HARPER
Will 2013 be remembered as the beginning of the end of Stephen Harper's Conservative government? (CP) | CP

Will 2013 be remembered as the beginning of the end of Stephen Harper's Conservative government?

Or will it mark the low point from which he mounts a comeback?

It is becoming increasingly difficult to envision the latter scenario, in part because even some Tory MPs are openly — if anonymously — talking about a future without Harper as party leader.

The near-miss in Brandon-Souris, the kind of riding where the only real battle is usually for the Conservative nomination, rattled nerves and put some Tory MPs on notice that no riding can be considered completely safe.

The polls have gone from bad to worse for Harper, as his government plumbs the depths of its time in power. Never before has support for the Conservatives dropped so low for so long since they defeated Paul Martin in the 2006 election.

Challenges by Stéphane Dion and Michael Ignatieff, who both led Liberals into first place in the polls for a few months at a time, were easily swept aside in the past. However, Conservatives have been unable to put a dent into the lead Justin Trudeau has built and maintained. And this in a world where New Democrats routinely poll in the mid-20s.

The Senate scandal is undoubtedly the main source of the problems hobbling the prime minister, but it is not the only one. Conservatives have tried very hard to cultivate an image as serious and responsible fiscal managers, but another image is being created as the years in power start to drag on.

That image is one of entitlement, something that contributed to Liberal defeats in the past and the hollowing-out of that party culminating in the 2011 election.

Issues related to election finances led to the resignation and byelection defeat of Peter Penashue earlier this year and the pending legal case facing Peterborough MP Dean Del Mastro. Millions of dollars have been spent on advertising touting the government's achievements. An apparent double-standard related to the hue and cry over Trudeau's infrequent pot-smoking and the relative silence over Rob Ford's crack-smoking (etc.) has instilled the perception that a different set of rules applies to Conservatives.

The Senate scandal played right into this building narrative. The refusal of the government to admit any error and to shift the blame entirely on to Nigel Wright and Mike Duffy alone has done lasting damage to the Tory brand and particularly that of the prime minister.

Hope that their achievements in office, and not their behaviour, would prevail in public opinion seem dashed. The free trade agreement with the European Union is the sort of thing that should be right in the Tories' wheelhouse and is a legacy-level accomplishment for Harper. Instead, it has gotten little notice and the Conservatives' poll numbers continue to erode.

Worse, with the Senate scandal in the hands of RCMP investigators, Harper has no control over how events will unfold going forward.

Undoubtedly, this is contributing to the malaise within the Conservative caucus that is becoming increasingly apparent. The departure of Brent Rathgeber from caucus in June was the first salvo, which was followed by the sort of anonymous expressions of worry from MPs to the parliamentary press gallery that used to plague the Liberal Party.

Jason Kenney has subtly separated himself from the government's messaging on certain issues, particularly related to Ford and Wright. The recent spat between Kenney and Finance Minister Jim Flaherty over the employment minister's comments about the Toronto mayor may have been personally motivated, but it certainly does not dispel any notion that there is tension within caucus.

And the proposal by Conservative MP Michael Chong to give more power to a party's caucus and less to the leader seemed unthinkable a year ago.

Where will things go from here? Will the Conservative government continue to limp along until it is defeated in 2015? Or will the prime minister regain control of the situation and put his party back on track to re-election?

This past year blasted a hole below the waterline in the Conservative ship of state. If it isn't plugged soon, it will sink them.

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

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