Why Stephen Harper will still be the Prime Minister in 2013

Do you remember January? It was a weird time in politics: the national uproar over the coalition was dying down as Harper got the prorogued Parliament back in session. Dion was humiliated, Ignatieff was on his way in, and now was time for the Liberals to do something totally new...talk tough about bringing Harper down only to actually pass the legislation he was proposing. Well, okay, that's exactly what Harper-haters were mad about the Liberals doing in 2008, so that left Jack Layton as the voice demanding Harper be brought down. For the rest of winter and all of the spring and most of the summer, this was the script: Harper would do something, or propose something, or have something happen to him; Ignatieff would either disappear or speak seriously about what a big problem this thing was; the Liberals would either abstain or support the Tories at the next non-confidence vote and Layton would stand up and angrily rally that Harper needed to be forced into an election. The Bloc, so much as they (or anybody) cared, agreed with Layton. But with the Liberals votes or abstentions the Conservatives were able to keep governing. Okay, everybody following along? Here's how things went down:
Conservatives - didn't want an election
Liberals - didn't want an election
New Democrats - want an election
Bloc Quebecois - nobody cares what they want

So finally, finally, Prof. Igg decided enough was enough. The Liberals had demanded changes to the EI program that the NDP argued weren't enough and the Conservatives claimed were too much. At the end of summer as Parliament resumed, the Conservatives blinked and drafted up the demanded changes. Naturally, the Liberals voted against it. Why? Oh, well the Liberals had decided that the Harper government's time was up [in an unrelated story, a poll indicated the Liberals and Tories were a statistical tie. -ed]. So it was time to vote against the government, even though it was to oppose EI changes that the Liberals had demanded. Er, that didn't make a lot of sense, but whatever. Its election time, readiness committees met and everybody held their breath... and naturally, Jack Layton decided to vote in favour of the Conservative government's bill. Er, anybody following along?

[I think you need a break here. Read this. It has women's tennis and the anti-Harper ranting of a progressive hater. -ed]

Okay, where were we? Oh, yes, the situation looks something like this:
Conservatives - didn't want an election
Liberals - want an election
New Democrats - didn't want an election
Bloc Quebecois - nobody cares what they want

Things seemed to get weird there, didn't they? The Liberals now voted against the EI changes they wanted. The NDP voted for the EI changes they didn't want. The Bloc turned around and supported the Tories. Meanwhile, the Liberals are putting out endless ads talking about bringing down the Tories, while the Tories are busy putting out very negative attack ads pointing out the whole coalition mess could have Ignatieff losing this election and then forming a coalition government. These same negative ads totally thrash the NDP and the Bloc, who turn around the very next day and "prop up" the Conservatives. At this point even politically astute folks might notice their foreheads are throbbing and they have an urge to sit down and drink some neo citran.

Relax, I'm here to explain everything. I won't make any crazy prediction here, the post title notwithstanding. Its entirely possible that the current minority government will last 5 years from October 2008, and for the next 4 years the political game will keep operating the way it has been for the last month. Sounds fun, I know, but its entirely possible.

First off, read this article from Full Comment on the National Post website:

In Ontario, the Conservatives won 51 seats last October with 39 per cent of the vote, while the Liberals won 38 seats with 34 per cent. The polls now show them both around 40 per cent, pointing to about 50 seats each, with gains for the Liberals to be sure, but mostly from the NDP, which has 17 seats.

But for the sake of argument, give the Liberals 11 more in Quebec, and 12 more in Ontario, taking them to 100 seats. Where, then, do they find another 20 seats?

That's a very good question, because the math becomes really uphill for them from here. In British Columbia, with 36 seats, the Conservatives now hold 22 ridings, the Liberals five and the NDP nine. The Liberals might pick up five seats on the lower mainland, but again mostly at the expense of the NDP.

In Alberta, the Conservatives hold 27 of 28 seats, and the NDP has the other one. In Saskatchewan and Manitoba, with 28 seats, the Conservatives have 22, the NDP four and the Liberals two. In Marzolini's regional breakout of these two provinces, the Conservatives lead the Libs by 58 to 20 per cent. Hardly a groundswell.

Which leaves the Atlantic, with 32 seats, of which the Liberals already hold 17, while the Conservatives have 10 and the NDP five.
So the trick is to look at the riding-by-riding gains and losses. As things currently stand, if the Liberals make significant gains in the next general election they will be coming at the expense of the NDP as much as the Conservatives. With only 38 seats, if a resurgent Liberal Party takes 20 from the NDP and 20 from the Conservatives, they will form a minority government with 127 seats to the Conservatives 123. This is, of course, decently good news for the Liberals. Ergo, this is in fact bad news for the NDP. Jack Layton doesn't want another election under these circumtances, obviously. His 37 caucus colleagues, some of whom are looking at their jobs withering away (not to imply personal motives for Parliamentary votes) agree with him. Whatever the voting public who might vote NDP think, the actual members of the party who control the timing of an election don't want one. Unless, of course, the Liberals are weak and would be destroyed. This is part of the reason Layton has demanded the Libs pull the trigger since January.

The other part is fundraising. As we all remember from the $1.95 fiasco last year that caused the coalition crisis, the NDP are the 2nd best fundraising party after the Tories. The best way to keep money flowing into NDP coffers is to have Layton keep hammering podiums and demanding the Harper Tories be brought down. Even when he doesn't really want an election, Layton is big on talking tough. But when the rubber hits the road, Layton only wants an election when the NDP will do well. This may just mean losing 5 seats or so, or holding steady. They don't have much room to gain but a lot of room to lose. Still, an election would have to be held eventually, and I'm sure a 43-member NDP caucus in a 164 seat Conservative majority (with a 45-50 member Liberal caucus) is Layton's personal private wet dream. However, the only way this election result can be held is if the Tories lose a confidence motion when the NDP poll numbers are high and the Liberal poll numbers are low.

Does this situation seem familiar to you? It should, we already had it in January. The end result? The Liberals propped the Conservatives up to avoid an election. And now you see it: the only way there can be a defeat is if the NDP and the Liberals both vote against the Conservatives. But that, in the current calculus, can't happen. Either Ignatieff or Layton is going to be in a position of weakness at the drop of the writ. If the Liberals are riding high as they were a month ago, the Liberals want to hold an election and the NDP want to prop up the Tories. If the Liberals are struggling in the polls, the NDP want to hold an election and the Liberals want to prop up the Tories. They might talk tough to keep the money-earning rhetoric in the papers, but when it comes time to shit or get off the pot, one party will always be running for the door while the other one...er, shits in a pot [come to think of it, that's disgusting! -ed].

Now there are things that can change this: a major gaffe or error or screwup by the Conservatives can hurt their poll numbers to the benefit of both parties (specifically, the Liberals can collect enough votes on the right to make up for the NDP siphoning off votes from the left). The Bloc could somehow be pressed into service for some weirdo coalition with the Liberals at the same time a split in the NDP ranks leaves some joining up to defeat the Tories as others go against. Finally, one of the parties could receive incredibly bad advice: modern in-house party polling is extremely accurate so this seems far-fetched, but then again Dion did try an ill-timed coalition push in December. Other than these options though, I don't see the current political climate change too much.

In other words, Stephen Harper's minority government could last a full 5-year mandate as the Liberals and NDP keep flipping positions on who wants an election and who wants the status quo. If we have an election soon and/or without a massive gaffe or mistake that drops Tory support, the only possible explanation is that somebody got really really bad advice. This one is a guarantee: in that event, look for one or more of the major parties to experience a very very rude awakening the morning after the election.