Matt Gurney: Why on Earth would Stephen Harper want to return to politics?

There is one question that those who are madly speculating Stephen Harper may be about to mount some kind of return to political life have yet to satisfactorily answer. Do you get the sense that he particularly misses his life in the public eye? Is he so unhappy running his own consultancy back home in Calgary that he would decide to spend the next six months campaigning and then years waiting for the next election?

Does that sound like the Harper any of us spent 10 years getting to know?

A return to politics, specifically, to run the Conservative party he led to victory in three elections, would not improve his standard of living; if anything, politicians put up with a remarkable amount of personal sacrifice and aggravation for reasons hard to fathom for most of the population. He wouldn’t earn any more money by leaving his current private-sector gig to return to political life, with a long guaranteed spell as opposition leader before he gets a crack at the top job again. He doesn’t seem to lack for opportunity to travel the globe for meetings with well-connected officials or audiences interested in what he might have to say. And he’d have to start engaging in the personal-branding element of politics he was barely willing to tolerate during his first go-round.

Does that sound like the Harper any of us spent 10 years getting to know?

So why would he return?

Former prime minister Harper is a private, wonky and introverted guy. Huge parts of what it takes to be a successful political leader, parts that far too many leaders seem to think are the most essential, always seemed awkward and ill-fitting with Harper. Few question his intelligence. Likewise, few seem to believe he particularly enjoyed the schmoozing and baby-kissing parts of the job. Harper’s strengths, both as prime minister and as leader of the Conservative Party of Canada, were in the policy and managerial domains. Over the course of his career, with much practice, he became passably good — at best — at the touchy-feely stuff.

In other words, he currently has the ability to do all the stuff he was good at and genuinely seemed to enjoy. And while he does the policy stuff, and the big-picture strategy stuff, and the thought-leadership stuff, he doesn’t have to do any media interviews, or show up at a legion hall to read some bland scripted remarks in both official languages, or be photographed walking his kids to school (which would be admittedly odd anyway, given that they’ve grown up). He gets almost all the good stuff and very little of the bad. He’s eating his cake and having it, too. And all he has sacrificed to get to this place is … actually, wait. Nothing. He’s sacrificed practically nothing.

Former prime minister Stephen Harper meets with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in New Delhi, India, on Jan. 8, 2019. Prime Minister's Office, India

The one argument that could perhaps justify the speculation is that Harper did not like losing to Justin Trudeau and would like a chance at a rematch, especially since Trudeau has in many ways revealed himself to be exactly what so many of his critics long suspected — bluntly, a carefully constructed political brand that does not match well with the reality of the man who carries it. But not only is it far from certain that Harper would win such a rematch, even if he gets a chance, which might not be for years, it would be a huge risk to leave a comfortable private life just for that chance at knocking Trudeau out of the PMO.

And if there is anything that even his critics and supporters can agree on, it’s that Stephen Harper was always a shrewd and calculating operator. Why any of them think a political return would be a shrewd move likely to improve Harper’s lot in life is baffling.

If there is anything that even his critics and supporters can agree on, it’s that Stephen Harper was always a shrewd and calculating operator

Perhaps it’s simply that Harper continues to hold a plus-sized place in the minds of many, most especially his most vocal opponents. Even a full four years (and counting) after he left the PMO, they continue to think he’s behind every move, moving every lever. Watching, an intelligence vast, cool and unsympathetic, for the moment to return.

The truth, meanwhile, seems much simpler and in keeping with the private man who led this country, reasonably well, for a full decade — that he probably enjoyed the job, on balance, but he doesn’t much miss it, particularly all the hassles. He seems to have gotten over it far faster and much more completely than his strongest critics have yet been able to get over him.

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