What kind of party is the Conservative party?

A lot of disconcerting things have been said in Ottawa lately, but something from the prime minister on Thursday afternoon was more worrisome than others. And for Conservatives more than anyone.

Question period that day went poorly for Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Only a day earlier, most observers agreed that he was in rare form as he ferociously defended his integrity in light of new accusations lobbed his way from Mike Duffy’s Tuesday speech in the Senate. The Conservative line on Wednesday was that Harper had only just been repeating what he’d said for months. Whichever was the truth – either Harper finally sounded serious about the Senate scandal, or the entire press gallery suffered an episode of amnesia and were suddenly incapable of remembering this past spring – barely mattered six minutes into question period Thursday.

After taking his first round of beatings from New Democrat leader Thomas Mulcair, Harper had to answer a query from the far side of the House of Commons – the Liberal corner. That party’s leader, Justin Trudeau, was (strangely, when such events are unfolding in Ottawa) in Washington, D.C. for a conference about progressive governance. So, it fell to his deputy Dominic LeBlanc to make the accusation that instead of punishing Ray Novak for his alleged in “covering up the Conservatives’ scandal” and helping “hide the prime minister’s involvement,” Harper chose to make Novak his chief of staff. LeBlanc question was this: “Why does the prime minister think it is acceptable to reward potentially criminal behaviour?”

Harper stood to respond. “These allegations are untrue and unfounded,” he said off the top. The “reality,” he explained, was that the Senate is currently “in the process of determining consequences for senators who acted inappropriately.” Then, the prime minister noted what he saw as the problem with executing that plan. “The Liberal Party and Liberal senators are the ones who are trying to prevent this from happening.” This behaviour, Harper said, is unacceptable. And then he said this: “Senators are finally expressing a desire to deal with this and Liberal senators should get out of the way and support dealing with it.”

The line wasn’t just a one-off. Harper’s parliamentary secretary, Paul Calandra, picked up on it Friday, repeating it no less than six times while he fielded questions about the scandal in question period. “The opposition needs to get out of the way and let us do our job,” Calandra told the Commons. Why would the opposition cede its primary, inherent, role and allow such a thing? For our benefit – yours and mine. “On this side of the House, we are going to stand up for taxpayers, and we want the opposition to do the same and have the Liberal senators get out of the way. Pass this motion immediately.”

By Friday it was well known that the list of senators who publicly oppose the motion in the Senate to suspend Senators Pamela Wallin, Mike Duffy, and Patrick Brazeau from the chamber without pay includes Conservative ones, like former party president Don Plett and former Mulroney chief of staff, Hugh Segal. That seems significant, but apparently this was an unimportant detail to both Harper and Calandra. Still, given that simple fact, it’s difficult to imagine that the motivations behind dumping the trio from the Senate are more to do with relieving the taxpayers of a problem than they are to do with relieving the Conservative party of one.

Whether Canadians at large agree with Calandra’s suggestion – that a Conservative party problem is a Canadian one, too – may not be known until the next election, if ever. We can guess that those on the left will be asking (praying?) whether the political gods will grant them even more in-fighting and accusations next week. For them, the distinction matters a lot. But what are conservatives thinking? Shouldn’t it matter to them, too?

Earlier this year, during a morning session at the Manning Centre’s annual networking conference in Ottawa, an image popped up on the large screen behind the main stage. Two men, one cast as the Blue Red Tory (strategist Geoff Norquay) and the other as the Red Blue Tory (Sun News host Brian Lilley) were weighing in on what separates, and connects, the two sides of the Conservative party. As it wound down, the screen switched from the words “Red Tory/Blue Tory” to an illustration of a crowd standing in a large blue tent. That in the end Norquay and Lilley had found little that morning upon which to actually disagree was convenient for the point being made – that is, Red or Blue, the Conservative party has room for everyone.

Happier times, maybe.

It ought to matter to us all that staunch, long-time and loyal Conservatives like Plett are speaking out against the government’s desire for its three most controversial members to be expedited from public view so quickly. But it ought to matter most to those within the party itself. Is the Conservative party still shaped like a big blue tent? Or is it a party of one very blue tent and another, very red tent for the rejects – a party in which, when you speak your dissent to the prime minister’s office’s official line, you’re cast out, and lumped in with a bothersome opposition enemy? The contrast between the Manning conference – a meeting of the conservative base if there ever was one – and this past week in Ottawa could not be more stark. In the theoretical Manning universe, speaking your individual conservative voice means a welcome mat. In Harper’s real one, it means you’re a Liberal.