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Why Harper has to pull the plug

Stephen Harper need only look at the Conservative MPs sitting behind him to know that forcing a spring election may be his only chance.

The Conservative Party of Canada should not be able to win a general election. Why? Because it is a largely rural party in a largely urban country.

Of the 99 members of the Conservative caucus, 51 hail from rural ridings, and only 48 represent urban constituencies. (This estimate is based on a personal survey, with "urban" defined as a riding that contains a medium-sized city. Lethbridge, for example, is considered urban.) Canada, however, is an urban country, with about half of its population living in the six largest cities. A wrong-headed obsession with preserving a voice for remote communities skews the Commons in favour of rural ridings, at the expense of the large cities. Were it not for these rotten boroughs, the Tories would be in even worse shape.

The rural overrepresentation within their caucus (which must surely be reflected in the party membership) tilts the party in favour of issues that alienate urban voters. This is why the Tories oppose same-sex marriage and the decriminalization of marijuana possession; it is why they obsess over the gun registry, and worry more about false refugee claimants than promoting immigration.

Despite the rotten boroughs, the House comes closer to reflecting our evolving urban reality with each redistribution of seats, which should make it virtually impossible for the Tories to win an election, even setting aside their unpopularity in Quebec.

Stephen Harper has done what he can to overcome this handicap, by moderating the party's socially conservative image in some areas (abortion, bilingualism) and using the same-sex marriage issue to woo newly arrived immigrants from conservative cultures.

It hasn't helped. Polls show the Conservatives running third in cities of more than a million people. The opposition to same-sex marriage does not appear to be swaying immigrant voters in Toronto, where half of all immigrants settle. (Conservative gains in Ontario in last June's election came largely from rural ridings, accounting for 16 of the 24 Tory seats there.)

There is no reason to believe that there is anything in the Tory platform or in the leadership style of Stephen Harper to draw urban voters away from their traditional attachment to the Liberals, or any reason to believe that, if they did defect, they would go to the Conservatives rather than the NDP.

Unless . . .

Unless voter weariness with the Liberal hegemony reached critical levels. Unless a new Liberal prime minister conspicuously failed to live up to expectations. Unless typical Liberal high-handedness crossed the corruption line. Unless Liberal attempts to buy votes with voters' dollars became unforgivably blatant.

That is why Mr. Harper is determined to bring down the government now. In a straight-out contest of platforms and personalities, he knows the odds are against him.

But with the Bloc Québécois poised to virtually sweep Quebec, with Tories able to expect further gains in the West, and possibly an extra seat or two in Atlantic Canada, and with the NDP set to eat into the Liberal vote, the Tories only need 10 seats or so in Ontario -- so temptingly few! -- to form a shaky minority government. By next February, with the impact of the Gomery report receding, that window could have closed.

Belinda Stronach has sounded warnings. She holds an urban Ontario riding, a precious commodity, and she fears the consequences of voting down the Liberal/NDP budget, parts of which are highly attractive to urban Ontario voters.

A clever strategy. If Mr. Harper pulls off a win, she is certain of a seat in cabinet. If he fails, well, she can remind leadership delegates that she warned the former leader. But you know, she'll quietly say, Stephen Harper never really understood the cities.

jibbitson@globeandmail.ca

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