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Harper's alliances never die, they just fade from view

OTTAWA BUREAU CHIEF

He's not known as a man willing to share his plans or his power, but after this weekend's Conservative convention, Stephen Harper may have to learn to part with a little more of both.

Conservative supporters of Mr. Harper lost a battle on the weekend when they failed in their efforts to give the old Canadian Alliance wing of the party more clout over policies and leadership.

The move, had it been implemented, would have also established a set of rules that could have saved Mr. Harper from potential embarrassment in future leadership reviews.

But when Conservative delegates killed the idea Saturday, they underscored a message that has been some time in the making. This is a maturing and multifaceted movement, with several ambitious spokespersons who will have much to say about where it goes months and years from now. Each is developing their own constituencies.

For example, although there isn't yet much of a left-wing in this party, it appears to have found its champion in Belinda Stronach, the former head of her father's auto parts firm, who challenged Mr. Harper for the leadership last year.

Criticized sometimes for stilted performances and rookie nervousness, Ms. Stronach's greatest weakness was a lack of roots within the party. On the weekend -- and over the past few months -- she made efforts to correct that by positioning herself on the left of the movement. Ms. Stronach spoke out in favour of same-sex marriage, and a youth wing. She lost on both counts, but a following is being created.

"It's a differentiation strategy and speaks to where she comes from," said Ken Hughes, a former PC MP under Brian Mulroney who was in attendance.

"She's got to establish her bona fides and she's got to do it quickly."

If you believe that the next leader comes from the PC side -- and many within the party do -- Ms. Stronach cannot be discounted as a contender.

Deputy Leader Peter MacKay also won a victory this weekend when he marshalled the forces needed to defeat the motion to give larger ridings more heft.

The move was pushed by Harper confidante Scott Reid, and could have given ridings with large memberships more delegates to future conventions. It immediately set off alarm bells among old PCs, who saw it as an effort to dilute their influence, given their smaller numbers.

Party sources noted that the move could also have stacked the next party convention with former Alliance members who would be less likely to vote against Mr. Harper should he face another leadership review. Of course, Mr. Harper might prefer to quit rather than put himself through that, but if the Conservatives come a lot closer in the next election, and if Mr. Harper wants to hang on, such a rule comes in handy.

Mr. MacKay, who admitted to being somewhat intemperate in the way he fought the idea, nonetheless gave the old PCs a victory -- something they have not had in the newly merged movement for a while.

One final example of the party's coming diversity was reflected by the creation of a Quebec wing -- populated almost exclusively by former PCs. Mr. Harper's closest confidantes in the province are members of the provincial Action Démocratique du Québec -- a situation that long-time rank-and-file Quebeckers have argued is an effort to deny them influence. Mr. Harper may well keep his group in place, but organizing Quebec without consulting the new organization has become more difficult.

All this is not to say that Mr. Harper had an unsuccessful convention. On the contrary, his leadership approval rating of 84 per cent will quiet future critics, and he can credibly claim that the party has made significant steps toward putting behind it the accusations of a hidden agenda.

But even Mr. Harper himself seemed to acknowledge in his keynote speech on Friday that there are other potential leaders behind him, noting the influence of Ms. Stronach and Mr. MacKay, along with MPs Jim Prentice and Jason Kenny. He juxtaposed the talent behind him with the lack of counterweights to Prime Minister Paul Martin within the Liberal Party.

"It's courageous," Mr. Hughes said. "And I think it's a sign of real maturity of him to share the stage."

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