As the Conservative caucus gathers on the Hill today there are rumours swirling of a mini revolt against the Prime Minister's Office (PMO). If true, so far it hasn't amounted to much, but Harper will have to pay attention to it just the same.
CTV is reporting that sources tell it that "nearly two dozen Conservative MPs met secretly on Monday to discuss the issue of PMO's control.". I doubt that number is accurate. First of all, a meeting that size is almost impossible to keep secret on the Hill. If it was held off the Hill in a secret location then it would be of much greater concern. However, if the number is accurate, then one has to look at the issue that the dissident MPs want to advance and it's then much easier for the PMO to identify who was most likely at that meeting.
It is no secret that there is a lot of dissatisfaction in the ranks of the backbenchers, but it is aimed not so much at the Prime Minister, but at the staff in the PMO. Harper's first PMO was largely hand-picked. The staff, regardless of their age, was made up of veterans. Many had worked for MPs; many had strong working relationships with the caucus. That is not the case now, with instances of former summer interns being put into positions where they tell veteran MPs, even ministers, what to do and when. Hence the derogatory term "the boys in short pants" that MPs use to describe PMO staff.
Conservative "Member's Statements," or SO 31s, were vetted by the leader's office long before Harper came to power. There was, and still is, a rotational system in place that makes sure every MP has an opportunity to speak. Unless there has been a dramatic change, even with the rotational system, OLO staff or PMO staff spend many hours a day trying to find MPs who want to give an SO 31. Often staff end up having to write the SO 31 at the last minute, as MPs either don't have the time or interest in doing so.
If the situation is the same now, and I suspect it is, then this so called revolt is not about PMO control of SO 31s as much as it is about the Prime Minister not allowing certain MPs to push an agenda item, in this case their views on abortion.
This will change the tone of the debate within caucus. It can be as divisive an issue internally as it is publicly. The key question is how will the rest of the backbench MPs respond? Do they back the dissidents even though they disagree with their policy position? Do they use this issue to send a signal to the Prime Minister and his Chief of Staff that it's time they found a way to improve dialogue between MPs and PMO staff? Do they use this opening to flex their muscles and stand up to the Prime Minister to demand more independence?
If the Prime Minister can confine this issue to a debate over policy he can either relent and let them speak out on this topic or come down with an iron fist. The first sign of where he might go on this issue was the Whip's defense of the PMO position with the reference to "a team." The MPs ran and were elected to office on a common party platform, one they agreed to represent and promote. If the Prime Minister insists on keeping their issue off the table and they refuse to be a "team player" the dissidents have few choices, either back down or sit as independents.
Is the bulk of the caucus ready to assert what many believe are their rights as an MP to represent their constituent's issues even if it goes against party policy? Are they ready to demand more independence? I don't think they are at that point yet.
How well have the rebellious MPs thought this through? They are the ones who forced the issue into the public domain instead of confining it to an internal caucus discussion. Are they prepared to sit as independent MPs? If they are, then the days ahead will be most interesting to watch.