Conservatives want an election so badly they can taste it. Whether they get their wish for an early one will be known within days.
The Conservatives and their Bloc Québécois parliamentary allies actually won a vote 153-150 in the Commons last night -- a vote they insisted represented no-confidence in the government.
Predictably, however, the Liberals played possum. They claimed, correctly, that the vote was procedural and therefore not one of political life or death. The Conservatives got all huffy after the Liberals refused to resign, but they were just play-acting.
The vote did indicate, however, that this government hangs by a thread.
If the Liberals care about things parliamentary, they must allow a true no-confidence vote fast, because last night's defeat shows they cannot be guaranteed to control the Commons.
And a party that cannot control the Commons should not be allowed to govern.
Gamesmanship, thy name these days is political Ottawa. Every statement, every interview, every motion, everything spins around the parties' electoral calculations. The governing of Canada has ceased for parliamentary purposes.
The country's little capital has become a vortex of rumours, tactics, strategies, spin and polls, as the Conservatives and Bloc strive for an election the Liberals and NDP would prefer to delay.
Speaking of polls, read the Strategic Counsel poll in today's Globe. It explains why the Conservatives and Bloc want to go early. Not only would the Bloc sweep Quebec, but the poll shows the Liberals tumbling below 30 per cent nationally. For the once-mighty Liberal Party to be below 30 per cent spells serious political trouble.
Worse still, the survey shows the Liberals' once shining star, Prime Minister Paul Martin, has a higher unfavourable rating than a favourable one. He is considered indecisive and untrustworthy. From saviour two years ago, Mr. Martin has become a liability -- if this one poll can be believed.
Stephen Harper, by contrast, provokes as many favourable responses as unfavourable ones, a result that, for him, represents progress. Whatever you might say of Mr. Harper, and whether you agree with him or not, he has displayed, and continues to display, a strong sense of strategic purpose.
He wants an election, and he wants it now. Why, when the polls seem to suggest that Canadians do not agree? The Conservatives' political reasoning runs something like this: The anti-election preferences of Canadians will fade once a campaign begins; Conservative voters and workers, smelling victory, will be more motivated than the demoralized and somewhat shell-shocked Liberals, who thought that with Mr. Martin they would waltz to more majority governments. Finally, the Conservatives believe they will gain momentum by attracting more noteworthy new candidates than the Liberals.
Governments lose ground during election campaigns, Conservatives reckon, because incumbents get pounded by all the opposition parties every day. This Liberal Party won't recoup any territory because there will be more testimony and media coverage from the Gomery inquiry to regularly remind voters of Liberal corruption and scandal.
If the government survives until after the Gomery inquiry's report in December, the Conservatives fear the Liberals would regain control of the political agenda.
They'd shut down the Commons for months, thereby depriving the opposition parties of their best platform. They'd keep doling out cash in a shameless fashion, as the Liberals did before the last election, and as they have been doing again in preparation for the coming one. And the Liberals would claim that Mr. Justice John Gomery's final report exonerated their leader, whereas today, Mr. Martin remains, however unfairly, under a personal cloud of suspicion, if polls can be believed.
For these reasons, Mr. Harper wants an election fast. The arithmetic in the Commons for him is simple. He needs all Conservative MPs present (two seriously ill Conservative MPs flew in for last night's vote). He needs and will get the support of all Bloc MPs, who are slavering to hit the campaign trail and obliterate the Liberals as a first step to Quebec secession. And Mr. Harper needs one, just one, of the three independent MPs either to vote no-confidence in the government or to be absent.
If he can line up these ducks, then the Liberals will fall. From Mr. Harper's perspective, last night's vote was a dress rehearsal for what he hopes will be the real thing very soon.