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Ibbitson: Keystone missteps, Senate scandal have Harper stumbling

Stephen Harper will travel to New York Thursday in yet another bid to sell skeptical Americans on the merits of the Keystone XL pipeline. More than a pipeline is at stake.

Halfway though his majority-government mandate, a confluence of events and self-inflicted wounds have left the Prime Minister dangerously unpopular.

The Tories are widely expected to lose the by-election in Labrador on Monday. Former cabinet minister Peter Penashue faces defeat at the hands of the Liberals, which would present an early electoral coup for the new leader, Justin Trudeau.

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And it's not just the by-election. Polls suggest that if a general election were held tomorrow, Mr. Harper would lose it.

But only the very foolish would predict such a defeat in two years time. Political fortunes are determined by fundamentals and events. Both continue to favour Mr. Harper, despite his present travails.

How much trouble is this government in? Let us count the ways.

The Conservatives bet on President Barack Obama approving the initial Keystone project, and lost. The proposed Northern Gateway alternative that would send oil to Asian markets through British Columbia has been effectively scuttled by native and provincial political opposition.

An agreement for a free-trade deal with the European Union is five months behind schedule, and counting. If CETA, as the proposed treaty is called, fails, that would be another major blow to the government's credibility.

On top of that, an audit last week concluded that a Tory senator (plus one former Tory and one Liberal) improperly claimed tens of thousands of dollars in expenses. In the lower house, a gaggle of Conservative MPs is resisting Mr. Harper's determination not to permit any further debate on abortion.

All this, combined with chronic complaints that the Tories are bull-headed on foreign policy and just plain nasty at home, have pushed the Conservatives into second place in a raft of polls, some of which show the party dropping below 30 per cent in support.

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Put it all together, and you have a damning indictment. But a guilty verdict in 2015 is far from settled.

Mr. Harper will reshape his cabinet in a few weeks' time, giving him a chance to put some friendlier faces in some key portfolios. Look for some combination of Eve Adams, Chris Alexander, Candice Bergen, Rick Dykstra, Shelly Glover, Kellie Leitch, Rob Moore and/or Michelle Rempel to advance into cabinet.

Most informed observers expect Mr. Obama to approve the revised Keystone proposal, notwithstanding pressure from the environmental wing of his coalition, because the fallout in the industrial states from a veto would be too politically damaging in the run-up to the 2014 midterm elections.

As The Globe has reported, an agreement with the Europeans may also be imminent. If so, two potential fails could be transformed into solid successes.

The Supreme Court is considering the government's proposal to have senators elected to limited terms. Whatever the Supremes decide, Mr. Harper can use the clout of judicial review in his next bid for Senate reform.

Above all, elections matter, as Christy Clark is reminding us. Though the Liberal Leader is still expected to lose the provincial election in B.C. Tuesday, she has made the race against NDP Leader Adrian Dix far, far closer than anyone expected.

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Mr. Harper is a master tactician. In the next federal election, he will have the advantage of incumbency and experience. Both Mr. Trudeau and NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair will be facing their first campaign as leader.

And unless one of the two parties collapses, the greatest danger for the progressives is that they will split the vote, allowing the Tories once again to come up the middle.

This does not mean Mr. Harper is certain to win. But it does mean that the fundamentals and the likely shape of events suggest those who sing of his defeat may eventually have to change their tune.

Editor's Note:  In an earlier version of this article, which has been corrected, Kellie Leitch's name was misspelled.

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About the Author
Writer-at-large

John Ibbitson started at The Globe in 1999 and has been Queen's Park columnist and Ottawa political affairs correspondent.Most recently, he was a correspondent and columnist in Washington, where he wrote Open and Shut: Why America has Barack Obama and Canada has Stephen Harper. He returned to Ottawa as bureau chief in 2009. More

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