Editor’s note: This is an excerpt from Gerry Nicholls’s soon-to-be-published memoirs Loyal to the Core: Stephen Harper, Me and the NCC. See my blog entry about it here.
By April 2001, Canadian Alliance leader Stockwell Day was in deep trouble. Polls showed that among Canadians he was about as popular as Canadian flags at a Bloc Quebecois convention.
And even his own caucus—fed up with Day’s incompetence, poor judgment and political blunders—was erupting into open rebellion, with some CA MPs calling upon him to resign.
I knew if Day did go belly up, Stephen Harper, my boss and president of the National Citizens Coalition, would be under tremendous pressure to replace him as leader. Indeed, as early as February, Stephen told me Alliance MPs were on his case, pushing him to rescue the party.
Of course, the same thing happened a year earlier when people were pushing him to take on Preston Manning in the Alliance’s first-ever leadership race. At that time, however, Stephen wanted nothing to do with the Alliance, the creation of which he opposed from the very beginning. Stephen feared the Alliance would be more like a Manning “personality cult,” than an “agenda-driven” principled conservative party.
Indeed in 1999, when Manning first proposed the idea of replacing the Reform Party with some sort of “United Alternative,” Stephen told me he was going to wage “guerrilla warfare” to try and stop it. And he did wage such a war.
The NCC spent $20,000 to commission a poll which showed Reformers were deeply divided about morphing their party into a new entity. As Stephen told the media, “These results confirm, that the Reform/UA has become a house divided against itself.”
We released that poll just a few days before Reformers and breakaway Tories were to hold a convention on the question of forming a new party. It was a move which the Globe and Mail likened to throwing a “grenade into Preston Manning’s camp.”
And so, given Stephen’s antagonism to the project, it’s not surprising that when the Canadian Alliance was officially created, he opted to keep his distance, although he did endorse Tom Long who was a candidate for the new party’s leadership.
But by mid-2001, however, the political situation had changed.
The Canadian Alliance was in terrible shape and Stephen was growing increasingly pessimistic about its future. He believed the Alliance was on the verge of complete collapse. And if the Alliance went under it would mean the Joe Clark-led Red Tories would be the only alternative to the Liberals, meaning Canada’s last hope for a truly conservative voice would be gone.
The Alliance needed a new leader; it needed a new champion; it needed Stephen Harper.
So I wasn’t all that surprised when, on June 7, he gave me some important news: He was leaving the NCC.
“Maybe I will seek the leadership of the Canadian Alliance or maybe I won’t,” he said. “I am not really sure. But either way I will be quitting the NCC within the year.”
Of course, I knew he was going back into partisan politics. He had to. But still I tried to talk him out of it. It’s not that I didn’t think he could win the leadership of the Alliance. The question I had to ask him was “why would you want to?”
To which he replied, “Because I don’t want my kids to grow up in a socialist country.”
How could I argue with that?