Thursday, March 28, 2013

How Big is the SoCon Threat to Harper?

There's been some ink spilled today by everyone's favourite Toronto Star columnist, Chantal Hébert, on the recent "revolt" that has been growing in the Conservative backbenches over the crushed dreams of Mark Warawa. Hébert's idea is that the grumbling in the backbenches could signal a future leadership challenge to Stephen Harper:
Such episodes routinely feature MPs who toil in relative obscurity, with little prospect of advancement but in politics hope springs eternal. It does not necessarily follow that their actions are completely divorced from the thought that they could do better under a different leader.
Hébert goes on to name some of the other "rogues," including Maxime Bernier and Jason Kenney, who have at times gone against the PMO's directions. Fair enough, and if Harper ever does step down, Kenney and Bernier are serious threats.

But is there a serious threat now? Is there a possible social conservative (or socon) revolution just around the corner? The sad fact is that we don't really know, though from all appearances, there isn't.

In the last two and a half years, there's been three big votes on "social conservative" issues: Motion 312, Bill C-279, and 2010's C-510. In all three, there a large contingent of Conservatives either defected from the main group, or didn't vote the way Harper did (though C-279 featured Harper voting "no"). I would also include M-408, which is Warawa's failed motion. It didn't feature any vote, but had quite a lot of people bring petitions in favour of it forward. Here's a nicely compiled list:

Click to view larger image
You'll notice right away who the definite socon Conservatives are - Warawa, Vellacott, Bruinooge, Benoit, and so on. There are a few others that come close (those in the lighter blue), including some like James or Hiebert, who only fell short thanks to the former not being in Parliament in 2010, or the latter missing one vote, but boith produced a petition in favour of Warawa's M-408.

So, there's roughly a dozen determined socons among the Conservative caucus that you can glean off these, admittedly few, votes they've made (or petitions produced). There's a larger caucus of what I'd say are between 55-65 other members that have voted in favour of socon legislation on a regular basis, taking into account missed votes and the fact that we've only had a few votes like this.

So, we can roughly guess that a determined socon opposition against Harper could produce around 70-80 MPs, possibly including five cabinet members (Kenney, Fast, Ritz, Shea, and Van Loan).  That would square off against a roughly equal-sized amount of non-socons, or at the very least, Harper supporters.

That would be a definite threat against Harper, as a revolt of that size would destabilize the Conservatives in a big way. The question, of course, is whether or not it could ever happen - and I feel the answer is likely no. Even among socons, there is probably not a big enough issue to cause them to join a revolt against Harper. They know who holds the keys to power. Lord help them if a revolt failed. These people aren't stupid enough to risk their careers like that, especially not the cabinet members. Warawa being beat down isn't really a concern for most of them.

When Harper steps down, however, is another story. There is enough support out there for the socon wing of the party to make a big impact, especially after they've felt so repressed over Harper's tenure as Prime Minister. Plus, they've got big names - Jason Kenney, Gerry Ritz come to mind - to challenge anyone from the other side. And really, think about the non-socons in Harper's cabinet that could be taken seriously: Peter MacKay? Baird? Flaherty? Sure, big names with lots of experience, but also a hell of a lot of baggage.

Right now the Conservatives can probably rest easy under Harper - but just wait until he's gone. The fun will start then.


  1. I thought Harper was a dictator?

    1. He definitely exercises amazingly tight control over all of his caucus - but not even Harper whips PMBs and so on, or at least its very very rare. But the Warawa incident shows that he's not exactly above shutting down any sort of debate for the sake of keeping control over his agenda.

      Is this different from past PMs? I'm not sure, I wasn't really around for that. I suspect every one of them has been something of a control freak, but people keep telling me - including Conservatives - that he's a special case. Former Reformers are even more aghast.

  2. Breakdown by province:

    25 of 73 MPs (light blue or blue) with 3 blue

    14 of 26 with 2

    11 of 21 with 2

    9 of 13 with 2

    4 of 11 with 2

    3 of 8

    1 of 1

    0 of 4

    0 of 5

    0 of 2

    0 of 0

    1. 70% of CPC MPs from Saskatchewan are light blue or blue
      53% of CPC MPs from Alberta or BC are light blue or blue
      37% of CPC MPs from MB or NB are light blue or blue
      34% or CPC MPs from Ontario are light blue or blue
      100% of CPC MPs from PEI are light blue or blue
      0% of CPC MPs from NS, QC, and the Territories are light blue or blue