Poll suggests Tories have leadership issues

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Summer is often a sunnier season than most for a ruling federal party. With Parliament shut down the opposition has to scramble to find alternative venues to rain on the government's parade.

That has been truer than usual this year. The 2014 federal summer to date has featured an overabundance of international turbulences and a relative drought of major domestic controversies.

Since the lights went off in the House of Commons in June voters have seen and heard a lot of Stephen Harper but almost always in relation to some major international development.

If there is one setting that usually shows prime ministers to their advantage it is the international stage. And at this juncture in his tenure Harper has clearly come to relish that part of his role.

But if Conservative strategists were counting on a Harper summer spent in the foreign policy limelight to restore their party's shine in voting intentions, they have to be dismayed by the midsummer polls.

The Liberals remain in the lead and the latest polls suggest the gap in their favour has been widening.

The most recent poll to be released, done by EKOS last month, pegs the Conservatives in the mid-20s, in a statistical tie with the NDP and 13 points behind the Liberals.

Like its competitors, this pollster put the Conservatives well behind the Liberals in Ontario and Atlantic Canada, distant also-rans in Quebec and leading only in Alberta and Saskatchewan. Some 2,620 respondents were polled.

Buried in the EKOS analysis - possibly because it is a provocative notion at this juncture - is the tentative proposition that, at this rate, the Conservatives could have a fight on their hands just to hang on to official Opposition in the next election. 

With a year to go until the campaign, a more topical question is what ails the Conservatives to the point that more and more voters are starting to take their 2015 demise for granted?

The fine print of the EKOS poll offers a few clues, especially coming as it does at a time when the prime minister has so consistently been in the news on his own terms.

It suggests that Conservative analysts are not wrong to think some of their troubles are leadership-related. But it looks like they are pointing the finger at the wrong leader.

If one is to believe government spin-doctors, the ongoing Liberal recovery is a passing fad, based on the political equivalent of fool's gold, i.e., Justin Trudeau's status as a celebrity and its purported fatal attraction on the media.

Some NDP strategists subscribe to the same theory.

But the fact is that NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair routinely scores as high or higher in the best prime minister category.

In the EKOS poll he beat Trudeau 54 per cent to 49 per cent.

Harper, by comparison, scores poorly outside the cohort of core Conservative supporters.

Even as he more than holds his own against Trudeau in the leadership category, Mulcair is so far failing to translate the positive impression he makes on many non-NDP voters into support. And that may be because a plurality of Canadians is shopping for a different, more collegial leadership style and not the more fundamental policy shift they often associate with the New Democrats.

Take the issues that have dominated the summer news. They include a war in the Mideast, a high-stakes showdown between Ukraine and Russia, the near-completion of a major trade agreement between Canada and the European Union, and the omnipresent pipeline debate.

On all of the above, the advent of a Liberal government would result in little more than variations on the policy directions of the Conservatives.

And while the Trudeau Liberals would be more proactive on fronts that the Conservatives are content to ignore, like that of social policy, the most striking differences between the two are found in the policy margins.

But if leadership style rather than core substance is the issue, the Conservative brain trust has a problem on its hands - for the more it puts a take-no-prisoners Harper in the face of voters, the less they see in him the consensual leader that they increasingly seem to crave.

Chantal Hébert is a national affairs writer.

 

Organizations: Conservatives, EKOS, NDP House of Commons European Union

Geographic location: Atlantic Canada, Ontario, Quebec Alberta Saskatchewan Ukraine Russia

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