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Keeping it in the Tory family

From Saturday's Globe and Mail

The Karlheinz Schreiber-Airbus-Brian Mulroney saga rolls through another of its near endless permutations. Were there a present-day Charles Dickens, he would have a modern version of Bleak House, the great fable of Jarndyce v. Jarndyce, the interminable Chancery suit around which the original and indefatigable Dickens wound his greatest novel.

However, this latest round of the modern saga, in the way of such things, has had already a peculiar result. It is not so much that Mr. Schreiber's elaborate and inconsistent unfoldings have captured the public's attention this time. Rather it is the - shall we call it background - drama of the inquiry that has seized people's interest: not the past mischiefs, alleged or real, of a former prime minister, but the both odd and awkward workings of the current one, Stephen Harper, to quarantine himself from his predecessor.

It began with the "outing" of the highly contestable fact that Mr. Mulroney was "no longer a member" of the Conservative Party. It was, we are told, high-cost advisers of the Prime Minister's own office who tendered that political delicacy to select members of the Ottawa punditocracy.

At the first hint of this Mr. Mulroney reacted, as he is wont to do, with a jet of that theatrical flare that has always been part of his equipment as a politician, and is not unassociated with the thick streak of Irish in him. No one fulgurates more gloriously than an injured Irishman: "I remain a member of the Conservative Party and I will remain so until the day I die," he said.

Doubtless the fulminations behind closed doors were even more ripe. Mr. Mulroney, and I mean this as a small compliment, is as precocious as the most hardcore rapper when it comes to straight-down invective.

Strangely enough, this decision of the austere Harperites to work the excommunication of Mr. Mulroney from the "Conservative family" may turn out of be a strategic masterpiece on a par with that earlier brilliance of trying to cut off public funding for political parties. Which almost lost Mr. Harper the government. But that move was at least over a matter of real substance. So the consequence, however unanticipated and singular - we shall not easily forget the two-day wonder of the three-headed coalition - was understandable.

But the attempt to throw an aging and embattled ex-prime minister into perfect exile, to declare him persona non grata within the party he once led to its greatest triumph, was hardly policy - it touched on no public interest. It was in every sense an opposite gesture, very particular and personal and petty. And undertaken, apparently, for no other reason than some wizard in the PM's office believing that sheltering Mr. Harper and the current party from even a membership card association with Mr. Mulroney offered some sort of payoff politically.

It followed, as everyone knows, an earlier Harper edict, before yet another Schreiber testimonial fest, that no one in his caucus was to have any communication whatsoever with Mr. Mulroney. This was extravagant, considering the interweave of friendships and politics involved, but it was accepted at the time. Some thought it a touch brutal, but the caucus legionnaires abided by their emperor's fiat.

Now, however, this newest masterstroke seems to have worked as when a pebble hits the car windshield. A mere splinter in the glass at first, it has worked its way across the entire pane. We hear of caucus broils. Peter MacKay greets Mr. Mulroney - actually speaks to the man ( quelle horreur). Almost daily in the press we have a report or two, a column or a musing, on whether Mr. Harper is the man to lead them in the next election. Whether he can stand up to Michael Ignatieff. Whether three goes at a majority is all any party head deserves. There is, previously unthinkable, speculation whether he has the command of party and caucus he once had.

The spat with Mr. Mulroney that one would have thought - especially at this late date - to be incidental, the merest sidelight to the (presumably) bigger story of the inquiry itself, seems to have operated as something of a catalyst for lingering resentments and dissatisfaction with both the style and substance of Mr. Harper's leadership. He is neither as secure or as intimidating as once he was. All this, coming as Mr. Ignatieff is surfing on some of the best press he's had since returning to Canada, has made the Conservatives jittery and with cause.

There was a gracelessness, a touch of piling on more than was necessary, to trying to push Mr. Mulroney so utterly from the Conservative circle. Canadians have an ear for "tone" in politics. They mind manners as much as policy. That gracelessness is costing the man his supporters presumably thought they were protecting. It has added to Mr. Harper's negatives, and opened a fracture within his party.

You could say, to coin a phrase, the personal is political.

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