Inside the right

This season's two best political books explore the Conservative tide

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The Gazette, Monday, November 13, 2006

The most anticipated political book of the fall season is Paul Wells's Right Side Up, on the fall of Paul Martin and the rise of Stephen Harper. The most surprising book is Bob Plamondon's Full Circle, on how the conservative movement split asunder for a decade before uniting as the Conservative Party.

Wells tells both sides of the story in his trademark style - bright, breezy, accessible, irreverent and insightful. Plamondon tells one side of the story in a style that is slightly heavier lifting, but ultimately at least as informative and no less rewarding.

Each author is on form, in very different styles. Wells is a magazine columnist and inveterate blogger, and he's very much present in the book as the narrator of the story. Plamondon is an Ottawa public policy wonk, a veteran of many Conservative strategy sessions who understands that while the backroom boys might run the show, they don't belong on stage with the leaders.

Wells jumps back and forth from the Conservative to the Liberal camps, beginning with Stephen Harper's return to politics as leader of the Canadian Alliance, and Paul Martin's staging of a very Canadian coup, in which a sitting prime minister, Jean Chretien, was ousted by his own party after winning three successive majority governments.

Plamondon stays in the Conservative camp, or rather both conservative camps, the Alliance and the Progressive Conservatives, telling the story of their long march from wilderness to power.

By the time Wells arrives at the 2005-2006 campaign, the Martin Liberals have been set up for a very big fall by the Gomery Commission, which Martin appointed to differentiate himself from the ethics scandals of the Chretien years. The Martin Liberals made the huge strategic error of thinking they could simply rerun the tape of the 2004 campaign, when they successfully defined Harper as the very scary leader of a radically right wing party.

But as Wells tells the story, and he tells it very well, Harper had learned from his mistakes in 2004, analyzed what went wrong, made sweeping changes to his political staff, and decided to occupy the centre on middle-class issues like daycare. The Martin Liberals, meantime, learned nothing from their near-death experience of 2004, instead thinking they had snatched victory from the grasp of defeat.

Wells is right in the back room with three key Harper advisers, campaign director Doug Finley, chief of staff Ian Brodie, and Patrick Muttart, whose specialty is strategic communications and whose hobby is studying how the right seized power in places like Australia and New Zealand.

Wells makes two important observations about Harper. One is that he never makes the same mistake twice. And the other is that he tends to get into trouble "when he runs out of script."

This happened to him in the last two weeks of the 2004 campaign, when he allowed the Liberals to define him. It happened in the last week of the 2006 campaign, when he mused about there being no need to fear a Conservative majority, not with the Liberal public service and Liberal-appointed courts to keep them in check. This cost Harper at least 15 to 20 seats in the closing days of the campaign. It happened again in the summer of 2006, when Harper's five-priority agenda was virtually adopted by the House, and foreign policy suddenly became the focus in Afghanistan and the Middle East, causing a meltdown of his support in Quebec.

Plamondon begins from the understanding that there was no possibility of a merger on the right until the original antagonists, Preston Manning and Joe Clark, had left the scene. Once Harper and Peter MacKay were in place as leaders of the Alliance and PCs in 2003, anything became possible. It became inevitable after the Alliance lost a 2003 byelection to the Tories in battleground Ontario.

At the heart of Plamondon's story are the secret merger talks of summer 2003, the role played by the emissaries of each side, and the backstage role of Brian Mulroney in pushing the two sides together. But at the end of the day, it was Harper and MacKay who made it happen, because they knew had to, as the essential condition to winning. Harper met almost all of MacKay's conditions because MacKay had what he needed - the Conservative brand name. Once they had united the right, and once Harper moved to the centre, it was a question of time before they won.

There's a lot of detail in Plamondon's narrative, maybe too much. But there's also a lot of important information coming to light for the first time.

The Wells and Plamondon books are as different as the authors themselves. The Wells book is a page-turner. The Plamondon book is a revelation, quite the most pleasant surprise of the season.

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