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With Friends Like Harper: how Nigel Wright went from golden boy to fall guy

The corporate insider Nigel Wright engineered Stephen Harper’s rise to prime minister and became his closest confidant. As chief of staff, he acted as a conduit between Bay Street and the PMO—until Harper thought he could make the Senate scandal go away by cutting Wright loose

With Friends Like Harper: how Nigel Wright went from golden boy to fall guy

For well over a century, the Albany Club, a four-storey neoclassical building on King East, has served as Canada’s bastion of big-C conservatism. It’s the place where Toronto’s business crowd hobnobs with provincial and federal Tory leaders over scotch and canapés. The most anticipated event on the Albany’s social calendar is its annual Sir John A. Macdonald dinner, a black-tie affair in which several hundred of the party faithful gather to hear a candid address delivered by a prominent conservative. Past speakers have included Bill Davis, Jim Flaherty and John Baird.

This year’s event took place on a chilly evening in mid-January. The honoured guest was the employment minister, Jason Kenney, who gave a speech about Conservatism in Canada that included a spirited defence of Bay Street’s own Nigel Wright—a respected ­corporate player who, eight months earlier, had stepped down from his role as Stephen Harper’s chief of staff. Sometimes people try to do the right thing in politics, Kenney said, and it doesn’t work out the way it should. His words brought the crowd to their feet amid thunderous applause, hooting and whistling.

Wright, of course, resigned after it was revealed that he’d written a $90,000 personal cheque to Mike Duffy, to cover the senator’s inappropriate expense claims. The deed appeared, on its face, harmless enough: Wright wanted taxpayers reimbursed, and Duffy didn’t have the money to do it. At first, Harper seemed to see it that way, too. But over the following six months, he distanced himself from Wright, ultimately portraying his former right-hand man as a deceitful plotter whom he’d in fact dismissed. Kenney, who is rumoured to have his eye on the prime minister’s job, was the first MP to break ranks with his boss. Referring to Wright, he told the media, “As far as I can tell, this was an uncharacteristic lapse of judgment.”

Wright has toiled tirelessly in the backrooms of the ­Conservative party machine for 30 years. He was one of ­Harper’s biggest supporters and an unofficial advisor since the late 1990s. They were close friends who respected and trusted each other. And then Wright was thrown under the bus.

On Bay Street, Wright’s friends are legion. The list includes some of the biggest names in Canadian business—Gerald Schwartz, Peter and Anthony Munk, the Jackmans—as well as many lesser-known but no less influential corporate leaders and political organizers. Harper’s treatment of Wright—and his inept handling of the entire ordeal—has forced many of them to re-evaluate the prime minister. Not only has the crisis challenged their perception of his political infallibility, but it has made them question his judgment. As one senior Conservative said to me, “If this is going to be a contest in terms of who Bay Street values more, I don’t like Harper’s odds.”

To the public, the Senate scandal is a baffling, sometimes comical tale of greedy, hyper-partisan politicians and of backroom hacks trying desperately to protect them. But to corporate and political insiders, it’s a story of personal betrayal—and a rift that has divided the Conservative party at the highest levels.