Preston Manning and Stephen Harper, uneasy alliance

By Dennis Gruending

Preston ManningThe 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 Manning’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, and  sympathetic columnists who write for the The Globe and Mail, Canwest newspaper chain, Macleans and others. Harper’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 country’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’s  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 Reform’s chief policy officer. Harper played a major role in drafting Reform’s 1988 election platform. He also ran in that year’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. “It 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,” Manning writes. He says that both Harper and Flanagan exhibited a “dislike and mistrust” of Reform’s populist dimension. “At 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 Reform’s and my belief in the value of grassroots consultation and participation in key decisions. . .”

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 “a dark cloud” 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, Manning’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 Harper’s antipathy to Anderson had a deeper origin. “Stephen 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.”

Harper quits Manning

Harper had already quit as Reform’s chief policy officer by 1992, but remained a candidate in the next election. Manning writes: “He withdrew from the national campaign effort to work almost exclusively on his personal campaign for election in Calgary West.” Manning adds that the loss of a key player “was 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.” 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 Manning’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 Harper’s “machinations.” He says that he expected attacks from his political opponents, “but the ones that affected us most as a family, were the ones that came from internal sources.” Manning says that Harper attacked Sandra Manning as well as her husband, then “professed not to know what all the fuss was about, saying that he was being ‘unfairly accused’”.

In 1996, Manning and other Reformers were laying the groundwork for another election when Harper let the side down again. “Stephen Harper had gloomily concluded that we were gong nowhere and would likely lose badly in the next election,” Manning writes. “Rather 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 – 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.”

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: “The 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.” Harper was soon named as vice-president, and later president of the secretive and right wing National Citizens’ Coalition. When the election campaign moved into full swing in May 1997, Manning says, Reform came under public attack “from within”. 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: “Why 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.”

Harper returns

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 Manning’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, Harper’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 protégé, but it is difficult to believe that he has forgotten them.

8 thoughts on “Preston Manning and Stephen Harper, uneasy alliance

  1. Preston Manning was often the object of ridicule, but he turned out to be a “big man”! Stephen Harper managed to become Prime Minister of Canada, but he remains a “small man”!


  2. Well said, Dennis. As usual.

    For better or worse, Manning was a liability to the Reform party because he stuck to his (albeit whacky) principles. His refusal to compromise on issues like grassroots party democracy (which allowed the Myron Thompsons to voice their concerns) were his undoing.

    Harper doesn’t really seem to believe in much–which is what makes him so dangerous. Perhaps he learned something from being a Young Liberal that you don’t win in Canadian politics with conviction. You have to do whatever it takes. He’s very committed to ideological neo-liberalism, but hides it. He’ll say something to one audience, then denounce that audience at another meeting. Manning, at least, was out in the open about his misguided convictions. Honesty, regardless of where it’s from is still a virtue. And Manning has that.


  3. An excellent account of a man to whom betrayal is second nature. This glimpse into the soul of Stephen Harper speaks volumes for the scant regard he holds for the Canadian people. He must be constantly looking over his shoulder. People like this have to fear their own more than any other.


  4. HArper has a history of betrayal longer than the incidents you descirbe. Harper was a legislative assistant to MP Jim Hawke. HAwke nurtured Harper’s career and Harper rewarded HAwke by resigning and running against Hawke, twice. He defeated Hawke the second time. Nice guy.


  5. It’s interesting to note the contradiction between Harper’s reported distaste for the grassroots populism of the Reform party and his cynical, even deceitful exploitation of the same populism in his criticisms of the Coalition a few months ago.

    Rejecting Canadian constitutional traditions of parliamentary democracy, the Harper ‘Conservatives’ threatened to go ‘over the head’ of the GG directly to the Canadian people, arguing–falsely–that Canadians had elected Stephen Harper PM, as though there had been a US-style election for president.

    Harper seems to be a fair-weather friend of Reform-style grassroots populism: reject it when the grassroots can’t be trusted to do what the backroom elites know is best, embrace it when stirring up political anger with false arguments can benefit you politically.


  6. Seems to me Harper is just another example of how cynical the political systems is,i.e honesty and conviction are not required.This type of behavior is is definitly not an aberration or something unique to Harper,should anyone really be surprised ?
    Least we forget Mulroney,or the Liberals(masters at playing the cynical game that is politics) for that matter
    No wonder 40-45 % of people chose not to vote.


  7. This is what many people sense about Harper; that he is not genuine, not truthful, and that he is completely self-absorbed. He doesn’t care about Canada any more than he cared about Preston Manning. I was not a Reform Party supporter, but I always knew that Preston Manning was exactly what he said he was. Harper to me was an opportunistic parasite looking for a place to lodge, and launch his quest for power.


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