Ottawa The Conservatives scrambled yesterday to right a ship battered by the stunning defection of high-profile MP Belinda Stronach to the Liberal cabinet, a move that reduces the odds they can defeat the government in a parliamentary vote tomorrow.
The departure came as a new poll showed the Tories badly trailing the Liberals in the national electoral heartland of Ontario, where the former auto-parts executive was seen as a key element to boosting their fortunes.
Yesterday, even federal Conservative Leader Stephen Harper acknowledged that Ms. Stronach's decision to accept Paul Martin's offer of a cabinet post will make it difficult for his party to win a confidence motion aimed at bringing down the government.
Your views: What do you think about MP Belinda Stronach's move to the Liberals? Selected entries have been published here.
"I told my wife only a few days ago that I thought it had become obvious to Belinda that her leadership ambitions would not be reached in this party regardless of whether or not we won the next election, that they just weren't in the cards, and I thought that would mean trouble."
The departure of one of the party's few celebrities was amplified by her parting shot -- that Mr. Harper is insensitive to the concerns of women, urban Canada, and Ontario, and that his plan to force an election will aid Quebec separatists.
"I would say that I've been uncomfortable with the direction the Leader has been taking the party for some time," Ms. Stronach told The Globe and Mail.
Liberal strategists congratulated themselves on a coup that they calculated would help both tomorrow's vote and a potential election campaign. Ms. Stronach's credentials as a moderate and glamorous Toronto Tory were seen as an asset for a party that needs to gain ground in Liberal-dominated Ontario.
Mr. Harper, meanwhile, moved to shore up the Conservatives' own ranks.
After an emergency caucus meeting last night, he said the Tories will continue with efforts to bring down the government.
But the party did move to help its two Newfoundland MPs, who are under pressure from Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Danny Williams to vote with the government on the main budget bill. The legislation gives the province additional energy revenue under the Atlantic accord.
The Tories will vote for that bill, but could bring the government down on a vote to take place immediately afterward on a budget amendment clearing the way for a $4.7-billion spending package agreed to by the Liberals and the New Democratic Party.
Mr. Harper also took a shot at Mr. Williams. "What is the next thing? We're going to be asked to have a bunch of Mafia people working for the government because it might give Danny Williams money a week earlier?"
Edmonton Conservative MP James Rajotte, a Harper loyalist, said yesterday: "We need to react strongly. We can't let this sap the morale."
Ms. Stronach's defection means the Conservatives and Bloc Québécois must win over both of the two wavering independent MPs, Chuck Cadman and David Kilgour, to defeat Mr. Martin's government in the budget vote tomorrow. Even Tory MPs indicated they now believe Mr. Cadman will vote with the government and they will lose.
The Prime Minister immediately handed Ms. Stronach a senior cabinet post as Human Resources Minister.
Mr. Martin said it is not unusual for MPs to defect straight into a cabinet post, although it is only the third time that has happened since Confederation.
He insisted that the importance of the defection was not that it will help his government win the vote -- prompting an outburst of laughter from assembled reporters.
"Just a minute," Mr. Martin said, betraying a small smile. "We still do not know whether the budget will pass or not. Well, I've got to tell you I can count."
Ms. Stronach gave several reasons for her defection, including her fear that an alliance between the Tories and the Bloc to bring down the government would "stack the deck in favour of separatism."
But it was her blasts at Mr. Harper's leadership that left the Tories reeling.
"I tried to the very best of my ability to play a constructive role within the Conservative Party to advance issues that really matter to Canadians in cities, to women, to young people, to many Ontarians," she said.
"But I regret to say that I do not believe the party leader is truly sensitive to the needs of each part of the country and just how big and complex Canada really is."
The remarks brought a volley from Mr. Harper later in the day, as he presented a Conservative candidate in Montreal: "I've never really noticed complexity to be Belinda's strong point."
A new poll for The Globe and Mail-CTV appeared to bear out Ms. Stronach's concerns about the party's popularity in Ontario.
The survey, conducted by The Strategic Counsel between May 12 and May 15, found that 33 per cent of Canadians would vote Liberal, compared with 30 per cent for the Tories and 19 per cent for the NDP.
In Ontario, however, the Liberals garnered 43 per cent support, compared with 30 per cent for the Tories and 21 per cent for the NDP. Just last week, the Conservatives led by one percentage point in the province. The survey has a margin of error of 2.5 percentage points, 95 per cent of the time.
Strategic Counsel chairman Allan Gregg said the Tories may have been hurt by their efforts to shut down the Commons and Mr. Harper's angry criticism of the Liberals.
"Every time Harper gets ahead in the polls, he immediately pulls back. If you look at the pattern of 2004 [election], you can hypothesize that that's exactly what's taking place," he said.
The poll also found that the Liberals are beginning to gain back support in Quebec, rising nine points to 25 per cent, compared with 48 per cent for the Bloc Québécois and 14 for the Tories.
Ms. Stronach's defection only served to spark questions on whether the so-called progressive wing of the Conservative Party is solidly behind Mr. Harper. Tory MPs trotted out yesterday to insist that Mr. Harper has taken pains to be inclusive.
Meanwhile, senior Liberals calculated that the defection not only helps win tomorrow's confidence vote, but would aid them in a possible election by boosting Ontario support and widening the gender gap that sees the Liberals ahead of the Tories with female voters.
Mr. Martin insisted there is no other defection in the cards before tomorrow's vote, meaning that the survival of the government will still come down to the stand of independent MPs.
With reports from Gloria Galloway and Ingrid Peritz
Liberals gaining popularity
Canada's choice if an election were held today (1,339 respondents):
Ontario's choice if an election were held today (509 respondents):
SOURCE: IPSOS-REID/THE STRATEGIC COUNSEL