Following the convincing Conservative defeat in the Oct. 19 federal election, Prime Minister Stephen Harper resigned as leader and fittingly so. He was at the wheel and the ship ran aground. The captain goes down with his ship, right? Well, not so here. Harper, apparently, will sit in Parliament as a backbencher representing a suburban Calgary riding.
It’s not clear why he’s doing this; there are few precedents for this large a fall, with the defeated leader remaining in government. The Liberals hold so many seats, they still outnumber every other party’s seats combined. The defeat was a definitive comment on Harper’s government and leadership style.
It’s also rather karmic because in Harper’s government it was made clear from the top (Harper’s office) that backbenchers in the Conservative party had better keep quiet and toe the party line if they knew what was good for them; it’ll be interesting to see Harper on the receiving end of the “you’ll do what you’re told” school of leadership.
There must certainly be one person in Ottawa relieved that Harper’s gone; Rona Ambrose won’t have to hold the door open for him anymore.
Jokes aside, the idea of Harper staying on as a backbencher is ludicrous. Harper’s presence is the giant blue elephant in the room. There have been a few other distasteful instances of a former prime minister remaining in the House of Commons after defeat, one in particular.
Conservative Prime Minister John Diefenbaker lost his job in 1963 to the Liberals, but stayed on as leader of the opposition. He eventually lost that job too to Conservative rival Dalton Camp in 1967. Some within the Conservative Party saw Diefenbaker as a divisive figure with too much baggage. But Diefenbaker was too proud to see the writing on the wall. He stayed in government until the 1970’s, lurking in corners and espousing a 1940’s mentality of British supremacy in Upper Canada and holding grudges against other party members who questioned him.
Realistically thought, such a huge defeat, especially after Harper did everything over the last 10 years to ensure his fingerprints were on everything the federal government did, suggests the former prime minister must go. He even went so far as to insist that the federal government could only be referred to in press releases as “the Harper government.” Someone should have reminded him that the government belongs to Canadians, not to Stephen Harper. Perhaps this is one detail that, even in catastrophic defeat, still escapes his attention.
Another famous political defeat occurred shortly after the beginning of World War II. Some of it seems to apply perfectly to the defeated prime minister. British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, infamous for being one of the primary culprits responsible for appeasement to the Nazis, was finally chased out of Parliament permanently after Nazi Germany conquered Norway while Britain’s fate looked more and more dire and Chamberlain dithered.
After Chamberlain continued to pound the “Don’t worry, everything is fine” drum in the House of Commons, former Cabinet minister Leo Amery stood, quoting Oliver Cromwell, saying “You have sat too long here for any good you have been doing. Depart, I say, and let us have done with you. In the name of God, go.”
The time of Stephen Harper, love him or hate him, is over. It’s time for a new national Conservative leader to emerge, and that new leader cannot emerge if the defeated one sulks a few chairs down the aisle.