The Mulroney-Harper rift will help sell Tory book

Conservative-Reform faction feud is tailor-made for a book tour

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The Gazette, Wednesday, April 8, 2009

I've figured out who's behind the false rumour that Brian Mulroney asked to have his name removed from the Conservative Party's membership list.

It can't be the Prime Minister's Office that has been spreading the story for the last week. It wouldn't step on its message like that, going into a G20 and NATO summit, where Canada and Prime Minister Stephen Harper were in a strong position. However, those were PMO talking points that were emailed to caucus members at midnight last Saturday, telling them to shut up about the shouting match that occurred over Mulroney in caucus last week.

The next thing they knew, Bob Fife had the talking points up in bullet form on CTV Newsnet. Gosh, somehow they leaked from one of 143 MPs. Then Michael Ignatieff got into the act, having fun and making mischief at the same time, accusing Harper of showing Mulroney no respect.

So a non-story has become the rainy-day story of a slow news week, a textbook case of strategic communications mismanagement. But then, these are the same guys who couldn't get the PM to the G20 class photo on time.

But it wasn't the PMO that started it. I'll bet it was author Bob Plamondon, as a clever ploy to promote his new book, Blue Thunder, on Conservative leaders from Macdonald to Harper. The book was launched last night, appropriately enough at an Ottawa pub named for Sir John A., who was known to take the occasional libation.

The story of the Harper-Mulroney rift was perfectly timed for the launch of the book. What better way to draw attention to it than highlighting a split between the Harper and Mulroney camps, between the Reform and Progressive Conservative wings of the Tory party?

It's tailor-made for a book tour - feuding leaders, a party divided, caucus leaks. Sounds like the Libs under Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin. On Monday, Plamondon was making the rounds of talking- head television, analyzing the blood feud, but also plugging his book. At his launch last night, there was sure to be a buzz, not just about the book, but about Harper and Mulroney, two of the major figures in it.

And here's the thing that's going to set the political classes chattering: Plamondon doesn't just write about Conservative leaders over the last century and a half, he ranks them.

At the head of the class, in a class by himself, is the founding father, Sir John A. Only three other Conservative leaders - Borden, Diefenbaker and Mulroney - were full- term leaders of majority governments. Others, such as Arthur Meighen and Joe Clark, are written off as unfortunate casualties of history, not to mention their own bad judgment. Harper, who gets full marks for uniting the right, remains a work in progress, and in fairness should not be fully appraised until years after he has left office.

Robert Borden is known to most Canadians as the prime minister on the $100 bill, or the PM who came between two Liberal legends, Laurier and Mackenzie King. But Borden led the country through the First World War, and insisted on Canada's own place at the Versailles conference of 1919. Canadian sovereignty was born in places such as Ypres and Vimy, on the watch of a prime minister who raised a great standing army. He also gave women the vote.

In the post-Second-World- War period, only two Tory leaders, Diefenbaker and Mulroney, have won majorities; and only one, Mulroney, has won consecutive majorities, the only one since Macdonald to do so. Both came to office at the end of long Liberal dynasties, Diefenbaker in 1957 after 22 years of Liberal rule and Mulroney in 1984 after the Grits had been in office for all but nine months of the previous 21 years. Both times, the Grits were tired, arrogant and ready for a spell in opposition, and they were buried in the great Conservative landslides of 1958 and 1984.

Who, then, was the greatest Tory campaigner? The redoubtable Macdonald? The spellbinding Diefenbaker? Or the barnstorming Mulroney?

"Each one brought a unique set of skills and attributes to the cause," Plamondon writes, noting that Macdonald's genius was coalition-building rather than campaigning, that as a "raw and electrifying performer," Dief had no equal, but that Mulroney singlehandedly turned around the 1988 free- trade election, and is the only undefeated Tory leader in history. He gives the edge to Mulroney, and also picks him as the best leader on the economy (free trade) and the environment (the acid-rain accord, among other things).

This is the kind of stuff that sells books, and this is a serious and scholarly book, as well as a fun one. As for the Tory blood feud, it's a value-added bonus, the sort of thing that helps authors make the bestseller list. The least Plamondon can do is send the PMO a few free copies.

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