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Harper's dilemma: Back Mulroney, or back down

Decision opens the door for the Conservatives' version of the Gomery inquiry. But where will the political backbiting end?

From Saturday's Globe and Mail

Prime Minister Stephen Harper had two equally disagreeable options facing him yesterday morning when news broke of Karlheinz Schreiber's fresh claims against Brian Mulroney. Either protect the former prime minister and risk offending a chunk of the Canadian electorate. Or cut him loose and upset the unity of the newly-integrated party that, ironically, Mr. Mulroney helped to rebuild.

With his decision last night to call in an independent adviser to review the matter, Mr. Harper chose the latter course, and with that has put the wheels in motion for a possible Conservative version of the Gomery inquiry that wrecked the administration of Paul Martin.

While the parallels are far from perfect, there is a ring of the familiar with Mr. Harper's announcement.

When Mr. Martin proclaimed the Gomery commission, it tore asunder the Liberal Party because the findings and testimony ended up laying the blame at the door of Jean Chrétien and the members of his government. The anger and backbiting has not stopped since.

"There aren't the pre-existing animosities that were in the Chrétien-Martin case, obviously, but they're not absent either. ... They're just below the surface" said a senior Liberal intimately familiar with the internecine struggle that helped to kill the Liberal government.

"And they could be easily reignited by something like this, which is, I'm sure, a primary consideration in Harper's mind."

Indeed, a source told The Globe and Mail yesterday - before the decision came down - that prime-ministerial advisers were anxious about how to handle the situation. They knew that announcing an inquiry or going after Mr. Mulroney for the $2.1-million settlement he received after suing the federal government would offend a large chunk of the Tory Party. The other option was to stay the course in the House of Commons, a notion that the prime minister ultimately decided was unpalatable.

"They were worried about it," the source said.

Of course, the current government is younger and less tired than Mr. Martin's, and the vast majority of its members weren't around during the Mulroney years.

But a good number of staffers, cabinet ministers and senators were there, and they will find themselves conflicted when asked about Mr. Mulroney's situation. Opposition members will no doubt point their fingers at each and every one of them during the House of Commons Question Period over the next few months. The fact that Mr. Harper has ordered them not to speak with the former prime minister may keep them silent, but it may also rankle many who call Mr. Mulroney their friend.

By contrast, the party is also replete with former Reformers who won't mind the prime minister's announcement of last night.

"That's their problem," said one former Reform MP when asked of the difficulty facing the PCs in the party. "We don't feel any fault on us. We're opposed to what the Tory Party was doing back then and that's why we're Reformers."

One senior Tory told The Globe yesterday that Mr. Harper may be banking on the fact that Mr. Mulroney's decision not to discuss his relationship with Mr. Schreiber publicly has blemished the former prime minister so much that that his former political colleagues won't be inclined to support him.

"I think, unfortunately, Mr. Mulroney loses a bit of credibility himself which lessens his hold on things the longer he doesn't answer some of those questions," the Conservative said.

Also fraught with risk is Mr. Harper's decision to call in a third-party adviser. If the adviser calls for an inquiry, the prime minister can ill afford to ignore the idea. An inquiry would spark a parade of testimony and unending publicity that can't help but stain the Conservative Party.

Finally, the review will almost certainly have ramifications for when Canadians go to the polls. With Liberal Leader Stéphane Dion grasping for an issue, watch the Liberals do all they can to link Mr. Harper and his cabinet with Mr. Mulroney over the coming weeks and months. Whether it will be enough to reverse Mr. Dion's fortunes in an election is very debatable, of course.

But the Liberals have campaigned against Brian Mulroney before. Maybe they'll be tempted to try again.

Brian Laghi is The Globe's Ottawa bureau chief

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