OTTAWA — Stephen Harper may still seek to control the message, but so far in 2015, he has been unable to control events.
As he surveyed this election year from afar, he and party strategists thought they had a winning hand.
They may yet, but they will have to play the cards they’ve been dealt, not the cards they expected to draw.
Harper is steering his re-election bid over a landscape now littered with economic uncertainty, war, stalled pipeline projects, a huge trade deal that is more boast than reality, a chill in relations with our neighbour, and a Liberal leader who stubbornly refuses to go away.
Initially, it must have looked good on paper.
A balanced budget with money to spend on promised tax breaks that were pledged four long years ago.
Canada as energy superpower, bitumen flowing to the U.S. Gulf Coast and to West Coast ports for export to Asia.
A signature trade deal with the European Union, the largest trade deal ever signed, creating jobs and markets for Canadian manufacturers.
Instead, the winter is shaping up much differently.
Letting politics, not economic reality, shape budget-making has left the government no room to manoeuvre — re-election took precedence over sound fiscal management.
Finance Minister Joe Oliver looks like he’s merely buying time, hoping that a few clicks of his heels will get oil prices up and extricate himself from this box, but in the meantime, the government appeared to be uncharacteristically losing its message control.
When Employment Minister Jason Kenney spoke on weekend political shows of extending an operating spending freeze and exercising restraint without dipping into a $3 billion contingency fund, a senior government official popped up in The Canadian Press to counter Harper’s most powerful minister, saying there were no cuts planned and the contingency fund could be in play.
The problem with this is that Kenney doesn’t go off message.
He spoke for caucus last winter when the income-splitting scheme was in question after some blunt comments about its value by the late finance minister, Jim Flaherty.
A promise is a promise, Kenney said, and some sort of income-splitting plan would be a centerpiece of the 2015 campaign, and it was.
He strategically defended Nigel Wright on the eve of the party’s convention in Calgary and the demonizing of the prime minister’s former chief of staff was largely halted.
He was the first government member to speak out against Rob Ford during the former Toronto mayor’s darkest days and was said to be off message. Except he was right and others in caucus agreed.
Other senior Conservatives scrambled Tuesday to assure that Kenney and Oliver were on the same page and terminology Kenney used on the weekend may have been misinterpreted by some.
Party sources said there is no fight within cabinet and there is broad support for buying time by pushing the budget into April.
But clearly, the Harper government is feeling its way, not taking the confident pre-election strides it had hoped.
Similarly, Harper could not have reasonably foreseen that both the Keystone XL and the Northern Gateway pipelines he and Oliver championed would be on life support heading into an election.
He could not have foreseen the indifference to bilateral issues shown by U.S. President Barack Obama, or the environmental and aboriginal opposition to the Northern Gateway project on the West Coast.
He did not move the European trade deal quickly enough, although, at any rate, he did not get the domestic bang he sought. Now provincial discontent, led by Newfoundland, threatens to deliver severe damage to a wobbly deal.
Nor could the prime minister have foreseen the rise of the Islamic State.
No prime minister relishes sending Canadians into combat and the risks of such a strategy in an election year are high.
The revelation that Canadian special forces have been involved in a firefight with Islamic State militants has upped the ante of what had been sold as largely risk-free air and advisory effort in northern Iraq.
It has also led to speculation that Harper will agree to a deeper commitment for Canadian forces when, as expected, their mandate is extended in April.
He has laid the groundwork for such a move, but any prime minister seeking re-election would prefer to celebrate past military successes under his leadership, not the unpredictable day-to-day confrontation this could become.
There are suddenly no aces in the prime minister’s hand.
If he pulls this one out, it would be a testament to his ability to bluff rather than stack the deck.