The relationship between Preston Manning and Stephen Harper goes back a long way and has had its share of turbulence. Harper turned up on March 12 to give a speech at an Ottawa conference of Manningâ€™s Centre for Building Democracy. Manning and his wife Sandra created the organization in 2006 to act as a training ground for conservatives to win in politics. The March event included an array of politicians, operatives from the Fraser Institute and other right wing think tanks, the religious right, andÂ sympathetic columnists who write for the The Globe and Mail, Canwest newspaper chain, Macleans and others. Harperâ€™s speech was unadvertised and occurred behind closed doors, and his office would not release information about it after the fact. One of the invited journalists taped the speech off of a loudspeaker and other people in attendance, including the Western Standard online magazine, reported tidbits of the speech on their blogs and Twitter sites. In any event, it was quite a coup for Manning to be able to deliver the countryâ€™s prime minister as featured guest and speaker to small gathering of mid-ranking conservatives.
Publicly at least Manning plays the good and loyal soldier to the younger man who donned Manning’sÂ leadership mantle and succeeded where he could not in uniting the right. Manning hired Harper back in 1987 to work for the Reform Party but Harper was to betray his mentor on numerous occasions. Manning was still recovering from those wounds as recently as 2002, when he wrote a book called Think Big: My Adventures in Life and Democracy. In it, he describes Harper as elitist and disloyal, an opportunist and a quitter.
Manning hires Harper
In 1987, Manning recruited Harper, then a University of Calgary economics student, to become Reformâ€™s chief policy officer. Harper played a major role in drafting Reform’s 1988 election platform. He also ran in that yearâ€™s election and lost. Reform did not win any seats but Deborah Grey soon became the party’s first MP in a by-election and Harper became her legislative assistant in Ottawa.
In 1992, Harper clashed with Manning over the Charlottetown Accord. Manning writes in his book that he expected to oppose the accord but that first he wanted to consult the Reform Party membership. Harper and his close associate Tom Flanagan, a University of Calgary professor who doubled as a key Reform policy advisor, demanded that Manning announce his opposition immediately. â€œIt would not be the first time that Tom and Stephen and I would differ on the extent to which we should involve the grassroots of the party in decision making,â€ Manning writes. He says that both Harper and Flanagan exhibited a â€œdislike and mistrustâ€ of Reformâ€™s populist dimension. â€œAt this point, I did not fully appreciate that while Stephen was a strong Reformer with respect to our economic, fiscal and constitutional positions, he had serious reservations about Reformâ€™s and my belief in the value of grassroots consultation and participation in key decisions. . .â€
In July 1993, Manning and other Reformers were engaged in a two-day meeting to plan for the upcoming federal election. He had another contretemps with Harper and Flanagan, which he describes as â€œa dark cloudâ€ hanging over the session. He says that Harper and Flanagan wanted to run a campaign focusing resources and activity on Western Canada. Manning wanted to run a national campaign and says that is what Reform Party members had resolved to do at their previous convention. These disagreements also centred upon Rick Anderson, Manningâ€™s choice for campaign director. Harper was adamantly opposed to the appointment. Manning writes that Harper had never forgiven Anderson, then an Ottawa-based communications consultant, for supporting the Charlottetown Accord. But Manning believes Harperâ€™s antipathy to Anderson had a deeper origin. â€œStephen had difficulty accepting that there might be a few other people (not many, perhaps, but a few) who were as smart as he was with respect to policy and strategy. And Stephen, at this point, was not really prepared to be a team player or team builder.â€
Harper quits Manning
Harper had already quit as Reformâ€™s chief policy officer by 1992, but remained a candidate in the next election. Manning writes: â€œHe withdrew from the national campaign effort to work almost exclusively on his personal campaign for election in Calgary West.â€ Manning adds that the loss of a key player â€œwas a blow to our overall campaign effort, and it put more of a burden on those who had to fill the gap left by his withdrawal.â€ Reform won 52 seats in 1993 and Harper was elected in Calgary West. Several months later, in April 1994, he and some other caucus members went public with criticisms about Manningâ€™s use of a personal expense account provided by the Reform Party for its leader. Manning used some of the money to enhance his wardrobe and his appearance. (As Prime Minister, Harper has had a make-up artist and image consultant, apparently on the public payroll). In his book, Manning was still smarting over what he called Harperâ€™s â€œmachinations.â€ He says that he expected attacks from his political opponents, â€œbut the ones that affected us most as a family, were the ones that came from internal sources.â€ Manning says that Harper attacked Sandra Manning as well as her husband, then â€œprofessed not to know what all the fuss was about, saying that he was being â€˜unfairly accusedâ€™â€.
In 1996, Manning and other Reformers were laying the groundwork for another election when Harper let the side down again. â€œStephen Harper had gloomily concluded that we were gong nowhere and would likely lose badly in the next election,â€ Manning writes. â€œRather than pitching in to help turn things around, Stephen again chose to withdraw. This was now the third time that Stephen had vacated the field prior to a big battle â€“ the first time when he retreated from our Charlottetown Accord campaign, and the second time when he withdrew from the 1993 national election campaign to concentrate solely on his own riding.â€
Harper chose to resign his seat as an MP in January 1997, six months prior to the federal election held in that year. Manning writes: â€œThe media predictably interpreted this as yet another sign that Reform was in decline, which made it even more difficult to energize the pre-election campaign.â€ Harper was soon named as vice-president, and later president of the secretive and right wing National Citizensâ€™ Coalition. When the election campaign moved into full swing in May 1997, Manning says, Reform came under public attack â€œfrom withinâ€. He says Harper, Flanagan and others told journalists that the party would fail and that Manning was a liability. Of Harper and the others, Manning writes: â€œWhy people who professed to be supportive of the principles of Reform would provide comments disparaging its election efforts, at the very time when grassroots Reformers were working their hearts out to make the campaign launch a success, was beyond me.â€
Officially, Harper sat on the political sidelines between 1997 and 2002, decrying any interest in coming back. Manning was later defeated by Stockwell Day in the leadership race for the new Canadian Alliance party. Day flopped as a leader and in 2002 Harper defeated him in yet another leadership race. Harper then contested a bye-election in Calgary Southwest. Ironically, the seat was vacant because of the retirement of Preston Manning.
Ottawa-based journalist Lloyd Mackey, a long time confidant of Preston Manningâ€™s has written that Manning had acted as a spiritual mentor to Harper as well as his one-time benefactor. If that description is accurate, Harperâ€™s multiple betrayals must have been particularly hurtful to Manning. In the interest of what he perceives as the greater conservative good, Manning has obviously chosen to set aside all the attacks and slights of his former protÃ©gÃ©, but it is difficult to believe that he has forgotten them.