As Glenn Thibeault and Danielle Smith know, politics is a fluid business.
Thibeault is the MP from Sudbury who left the federal New Democrats in the hope of becoming a provincial Liberal politician.
Smith is the Alberta Wildrose leader who is defecting from her own party. She wants to bring much of her caucus into the fold of the province’s governing Progressive Conservatives.
Both have come under attack for betraying those who voted for them.
Certainly, self-interest cannot be ruled out as a motive.
Thibeault may well score a job in Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne’s cabinet if he wins the Sudbury byelection as a Liberal.
Smith may see herself eventually succeeding Jim Prentice as both Alberta PC party leader and premier.
But politicians can also be canny beasts. A good politician has an instinct for the way the voters are going.
And if voters are going the way Smith and Thibeault figure, then Prime Minister Stephen Harper should be smiling.
New Democratic Party Leader Tom Mulcair, on the other hand, might be advised to worry a bit
For Harper’s Conservatives, Alberta is both central and dangerous. Central because it is the spiritual heartland of the party. Dangerous because it cannot be taken for granted.
The entire Reform Party experience shows how chaotic it can be for a national conservative party if Albertans decide to go offside.
A prolonged civil war within the Alberta provincial conservative movement — between the governing PCs and the upstart Wildrose — could have spread to the federal arena.
Ideologically, the Harper Conservatives are closer to Wildrose, which is why senior federal Tories quietly supported Smith’s party in the last Alberta election.
But that 2012 election proved that the victorious PCs — then led by Alison Redford — were far from dead.
Redford may have been a bit pink for Harper’s tastes. But her own party obligingly purged her, allowing Prentice to take over as premier. And it was Prentice, a classic centre-right leader, who set the table for Wildrose conservatives to come home.
For Harper, the effective end of Wildrose reduces any danger of his being outflanked on the right by a vigorous, populist Alberta movement.
That, in turn, gives him more leeway to tack to the centre in next year’s election campaign as he tries to woo crucial Ontario votes.
For Mulcair, however, the Thibeault defection is another bit of bad news from Ontario. It follows on a string of byelection losses, including this year’s upset in Toronto’s Trinity—Spadina riding.
Why did Thibeault jump? The MP has talked vaguely of policy differences with the leader. A more likely motive is that he did the arithmetic and figured the New Democrats wouldn’t hold Sudbury in the next federal election.
In fact, Sudbury does not historically favour the federal NDP. New Democrats have won the riding only three times since 1949. Usually, it elects Liberals.
Thibeault’s victories in 2008 and 2011 gave the NDP hope that this pattern had been broken. His defection this week suggests that he thinks they were aberrations.
That Thibeault found it so easy to jump to Wynne’s Liberals should also give Mulcair pause.
The NDP has been trying to move right to attract Liberal voters. But Thibeault clearly thinks that this can work both ways.
If voters believe there isn’t that much difference between the Liberals and New Democrats, why should they vote NDP?
In the end, Smith and Thibeault may well lose their respective gambles. Politicians who cross the floor often overestimate their own popularity.
Jack Horner, the Alberta Conservative who famously defected to Pierre Trudeau’s Liberals in 1977 and lost two subsequent elections, discovered that to his cost.
But others, from Newfoundland’s Liberal-turned Tory John Crosbie to former Ontario Liberal cabinet minister (and one-time New Democrat MPP) David Ramsay managed to read the public’s mood correctly when they jumped.
We shall see which camp this week’s defectors fall into.