Liberals kept the Conservatives in power for two years, imploded, blamed the NDP — and could do it again

After backing out of a 2008 coalition pact with the NDP, switching leaders then backing Harper’s minority government for two years, it’s no surprise the Conservatives gained at Liberal expense to win a majority in 2011. The Liberals legitimized Harper.

And it’s also no surprise the Liberals strategists blamed the NDP for their epic failure.  Strategists are like that. But the bigger concern is Liberal strategists might do it again after this fall’s election.

Between the 2008 to 2011 general elections, Conservative support rose two points, hiking them from 38 per cent to 40 per cent support, adding 23 new Conservative seats, and giving them a majority.

That 2011 Conservative majority didn’t come from vote splits, as consoling and exculpatory a story as that might be for Liberal strategists. Harper’s 2011 win came from Liberals — in two ways.

The immediate cause of the Conservative win was moving two points of support and 27 seats from the Liberals to the Conservatives (Layton’s NDP increased vote support and took a net four seats gain from the Conservatives, limiting total Conservative gains to 23 seats).

The longer-term cause follows from the Liberals legitimizing former PM Harper after the 2008 general election, which elected a hung Parliament with the Conservatives as the largest party.

Almost immediately after the new parliamentary session in fall 2008, and despite the global banking crisis and impending recession, the Conservative government introduced an austerity package in their Fall Economic Statement.

In response, not only did the NDP and Liberals agree to vote against the budget and defeat the Harper government, they also declared they would form a coalition government, under Liberal leadership, to replace Harper, if invited to do so by the Governor-General. Facing possibly imminent replacement, Harper prorogued the Commons, putting off any confidence vote.

The Liberals used Harper’s delay to back out of their deal with Layton’s NDP. Liberal leader Stephan Dion quit in late December and was replaced by Michael Ignatieff in early January 2009. And, for the next two years of confidence votes, Liberal votes kept Harper in the Prime Minister’s office.

When the Commons was recalled on 28 January, 2009, the Liberals, now under Ignatieff’s leadership, gave Harper the votes needed to pass his Throne Speech and continue as Prime Minister. The Liberals also voted for Harper’s Throne Speech in spring 2010. Liberals supported Harper’s 2009 and 2010 budgets. Liberals voted for Harper’s Fall Economic Statements of 2009 and 2010.

It really was astonishing. The Liberals rejected a plan to replace Harper and instal a Liberal Prime Minister, preferring to back Harper than work with the NDP.

After two years of Liberals legitimizing the Harper Conservatives, no doubt some past Liberal supporters were convinced. And when the 2011 election came, a drift of Liberal votes to the Conservatives gave Harper his long sought-after majority. For that key sliver of Liberals, a weak leader like Ignatieff was a poor alternative to conservative stability on offer from Harper.

Of course that’s not how the Liberals remember it. In Liberal history books, two years of Liberal support for PM Harper is erased. The drift of Liberal votes — and seats — that boosted the Conservatives to a majority is erased. What is instead written is that once again Liberal strategists did nothing wrong — it was the NDP’s fault.

Leading up to the the October 2019 election there’s been no partnership between the Liberals and Conservatives. But should the Conservatives win a minority in 2019, and given the Trudeau Liberal’s history of pursuing Harper’s policies, the risk is that Trudeau would put Scheer in the Prime Minister’s office rather than form a coalition with Singh’s NDP. Like before.

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