National Affairs column
This was to be the week Stephen Harper stood in Calgary, drinking in the acclaim of the faithful.
The Senate debacle was supposed to be behind him, a sparkling new trade deal with the European Union was to be the centrepiece of a mid-term celebration of a burgeoning Tory dynasty, the first Conservative majority since the Brian Mulroney era.
The applause and the acclaim will still be there at the party convention. But those in attendance will be cheering a wounded leader.
It is worth a look beyond the Senate soap opera to determine what this scandal has shown us about Harper's leadership and some deeply entrenched views of the prime minister.
Supporters, like those who will be at the party's Calgary convention, will likely only hear one message cutting through the white noise of the capital - Mike Duffy, Pamela Wallin and Patrick Brazeau raided the public purse and Harper got the money back.
The trio will have been treated as any boss in the private sector would understand, Harper says. No one in business would wait for charges before acting to rid them.
But even that carefully calibrated message is falling apart because as Harper was delivering it in a rare radio interview, his government leader in the Senate, Claude Carignan, was getting the yips.
First, Carignan seemed to offer Brazeau a route to softer sanctions, then over the weekend Carignan mused about a similar deal for Wallin.
This can only mean that Carignan believes the Conservative caucus in the Senate is wobbling as it faces a vote this week on a suspension, without pay or benefits, for the three for the remainder of this session.
It's another sign Harper's well-honed reputation as the political grand chess master, always thinking two moves ahead, is blown.
Last week, he was crowned in a game of checkers. This week, he has too much riding on his Conservative senators.
Harper was looking for a clean, surgical cut and ended up with an excruciatingly long amputation with a rusty saw.
His judgment is again open to question, not just because he is the man who appointed Wallin, Brazeau and Duffy, but because he allowed (or pushed for) this public execution.
He is also now in a box regarding the $90,000-payout to Duffy from Harper's former chief of staff Nigel Wright.
The story of how this happened and who knew what has taken a dizzying array of twists, turns and sprints down blind alleys.
The payment was initially characterized by Harper's office and his acolytes as a friend helping a friend, then an altruistic move to help taxpayers, then, finally a bad thing which had to cost Wright his job.
According to Harper, he had no idea what Wright had done. Wright acted alone. Then Wright had involved "very few" in his deliberations. Friday, Harper said, he should have been told.
We know Harper demanded Duffy pay the money back, but the prime minister showed an incongruous lack of curiosity about whether, and how, his edict had been obeyed.
We don't know why Harper didn't immediately demand to know who else knew about the scheme when he learned of it, and why they weren't immediately shown the door like Wright.
Harper has still not explained why he didn't move to suspend the trio without pay when he initially learned of the scale of their abuses.
This appears to be a sliding scale of honour.
Last winter Harper thought he could tough it out. When the issue became a political liability, he had to act.
If he is telling the truth, and there is no evidence that he isn't, Harper shouldn't win any points for honesty because he was in charge of an office that allowed this type of skulduggery to unfold.
He is the leader, the office takes its signals from the boss.
But there is one other thing we have learned about Harper over the years.
He is a survivor, and he well knows that nothing is ever so dire as it appears to those of us who troll the halls of the Centre Block, nor is anything so clear to those far from those halls.
He still believes he has a winning hand when compared to his opponents and he knows how to play those cards in the long game.
Wounded or not, he will return to his home turf betting the cold, crisp, late autumn air of Calgary will clear the senses.
But he's not there yet, and that's what makes this week all the more intriguing.
Tim Harper is a national affairs writer. His column appears Monday, Wednesday and Friday. firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @nutgraf1