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Election Ringside, April 28: 'Winning the election, losing the House?'

Election Ringside: A daily exchange for The Globe and Mail between strategists Tom Flanagan, left, and John Duffy

Election Ringside is a daily e-mail exchange for The Globe and Mail between strategists Tom Flanagan and John Duffy. Check in every weekday afternoon during the 2011 federal election campaign for their insights and opinions about the campaign as it unfolds.

From: John Duffy

Sent: Thursday, April 28, 2011 11:28 AM

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To: Tom Flanagan

Subject: Election Ringside


A week or so ago - back when the sun rose in the east and compasses pointed north - we were getting into some interesting territory about the constitution. I asked you what you thought Mr. Harper would do were he to win the election but be defeated in short order in the House on a matter of confidence. (For convenience, let's call this scenario "winning the election and losing the House").

At the time, you demurred from discussing constitutional hypotheticals. They have since become rather less hypothetical, what with the NDP's Orange Crush now squeezing the Conservatives out of majority territory. And Mr. Harper has since upped the stakes, continuing to cast doubt on the legitimacy of non-plurality government by pledging on April 21 not to seek to form one were he to finish second. In fact, he introduced at that time a new viewpoint when he said "I don't think you challenge that {the first place party getting to form the government]unless you are prepared to go back to the people." This could mean that the Prime Minister's belief is that no change of government is possible without an election.

Now, Canadians seem to feel differently. According to an EKOS poll, a strong plurality agree with constitutional practice that the Governor General in a scenario of this kind should call on the second-place party to seek to form a government, rather than trigger another election. And that is what our constitution, and its conventions, seem to call for.

So I'll raise the question again. If Mr. Harper wins the election and loses the House, do you think he will bend to the constitution and the popular will, or do you think he will try to challenge them?

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From: Tom Flanagan

Sent: Thursday, April 28, 2011 2:03 PM

To: John Duffy

Subject: Election Ringside

Hi John,

If a single party wins more seats than the Conservatives, I think Mr. Harper, based on his statements, will announce his resignation as prime minister. If the Conservatives win a plurality but not a majority, he will carry on as prime minister and try to bring in a budget fairly quickly. If he is defeated in the House, he could (1) offer his resignation as Prime Minister to the Governor General, thereby allowing the latter to ask the leader of the Opposition to form a government; (2) resign as PM and also as party leader, opening up the possibility that the Governor General might ask an interim Conservative leader chosen by caucus to form a government; (3) ask for another election, as Mackenzie King did in 1926. If the GG refused that request, I imagine Mr. Harper would then resign as King did, and the GG would try to find someone else to form a government. I don't foresee anyone challenging the GG's authority with an appeal to the Queen, or ruling by decree. I don't think we will reenact "State of Siege."

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Those are the constitutional options as I see them (and I don't claim to be a constitutional expert). But I find two political questions more interesting. First, to what extent would the Conservatives amend their budget to try to get it passed? Second, would a weakened Liberal Party that finished third work with the NDP to defeat the Conservatives and make Jack Layton prime minister? That looks to me like putting a gun to your own head. It admits that the Liberals are no longer a governing party, and accelerates the downward spiral into obscurity. Ask various Western provincial Liberal leaders about it. Would it not be smarter for the Liberals to let the Conservatives continue to govern, if Mr. Harper would make them a reasonable offer in the form of an amended budget?

If the NDP is really emerging as a potential governing alternative, the Conservatives, it seems to me, should start to play a long game of trying to win over Liberals whose views are not that far from those of the Conservatives.

It's hard to be more precise without seeing the numbers Monday night.


From: John Duffy

Sent: Thursday, April 28, 2011 3:34 PM

To: Tom Flanagan

Subject: Election Ringside

Thank you for the comprehensive answers on "winning the election and losing the House". I would like to hear the same thing from Mr. Harper, especially the last part. I hope someone asks him.

As to your political questions, they are very trenchant. To answer the first, I can easily envision a severely chastened Mr. Harper going to Canossa - sorry, Parliament Hill, with a newly conciliatory approach to budget-making. After all that has gone under the bridge, however, I can only wonder if that kind of approach wouldn't completely miss the tone of events. Mind you, Mr. Harper has had trouble with that sort of thing at the start of a new parliament in the past.

Your second question gets more to the heart of the matter. And, sorry, that kind of stuff really is wholly imponderable until the seats get tallied. I mean, strategizing a poker hand is tough. But it is really, really tough to strategize how to play a poker hand when the cards haven't been dealt yet. We have never, ever seen this kind of four-way volatility this late in a national election campaign. Add that to the vagaries of the first-past-the-post system, and the imponderable becomes the indigestible.

It can be maddening, but then, if politics were predictable, we'd probably have to find something else to talk about.

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