The birth of his first child can change the way a man looks at things. Stephen Harper had always been a hardline ideological conservative, not given to bending. Among the inner circle that founded the Reform Party in 1987, he was the last guy anybody looked to for the spirit of compromise that would be needed if the breakaway populists were ever to reunite with the traditional Progressive Conservatives they had left behind.

Then, in the spring of 1996, his son Benjamin was born. A Reform MP at the time, Harper took a few weeks away from Parliament Hill to get used to being a father. It happened he had just written a newspaper opinion piece arguing that Reform was on its way to burying the old Progressive Conservatives. But in that mellow period of unaccustomed "detachment from partisan politics," as he later remembered it, Harper suddenly didn't believe his own tough rhetoric. He made two decisions. One was not to publish the article. The other was that the estranged parties of the Canadian right had to reconcile if the Liberals were ever to be beaten.

Nobody paid much heed to Harper's account of that postnatal change of heart, which he revealed in a speech delivered to the Mortgage Loans Association of Alberta in April 1998. But they are now. Last week news broke that Harper and Peter MacKay, who took over from Joe Clark as Tory leader last spring, had met on June 26 to set in motion secret negotiations aimed at a merger. How things change: when he won the leadership of the Canadian Alliance last year, ending a five-year hiatus out of party politics leading the National Citizens Coalition, he was still cast as an inflexible neo-con. And he was widely dismissed as congenitally ill-suited to winning over the Tories, who had spurned Preston Manning and Stockwell Day before him. When Harper made overtures, some Conservatives openly derided him as insincere. Were they supposed to believe he had any genuine respect for the Red Tory principles of Joe Clark?

Actually, no. In that obscure 1998 speech about his conversion to the unite-the-right camp, Harper was blunt in explaining that he saw the Tories' lack of convictions as their main asset. "A strong sense of political principle is not sufficient to govern people," he said then. "And this is where I turn to the strengths of the Progressive Conservative party."

Harper seemed to mean that as a compliment. His point was that Reform's small-government, free-market ideology - inherited by the party's successor, the Alliance - would balance well with the Tories' "penchant for incremental change and strong sense of honourable compromise." Such a union, though, has long looked impossible to achieve. Going back to the Winds of Change conference that launched the unite-the-right idea in Calgary in 1996, through Manning's ill-fated United Alternative initiative, and eventually then-Tory leader Clark's rejection of Harper's plea for partnership, all efforts failed.

The courtship is back on and it's been a long time coming; Benjamin Harper is now a seven-year-old Harry Potter fan. There's still potential for the talks to fizzle out in frustration. Some Tory MPs and senators, full of pride in their history stretching back to Sir John A. Macdonald, are bitterly opposed to sullying all that by joining forces with what they view as an apostate regional movement. But this time might be different. The apparent common ground between Harper and MacKay is key. While more has been made of Harper's staunch conservatism, MacKay is in many respects a kindred spirit. He voted with Harper in supporting that narrowly defeated Alliance motion in the House supporting the traditional one man, one woman definition of marriage. (Clark voted against the motion, siding with the Liberal front benches in favour of gay marriage.) MacKay is a law-and-order social conservative, opposed, for instance, to decriminalizing possession of small amounts of marijuana. While aides to both Harper and MacKay are being remarkably tight-lipped about their meetings and conversations, the two men seem to get along. MacKay was, after all, friendly with Alliance MPs even back in his days as Tory House leader under Clark.

Another critical element is the top-level involvement of elder statesmen from both parties. Don Mazankowski, a former deputy prime minister to Brian Mulroney, is bargaining on MacKay's behalf, and former Ontario premier Bill Davis is also on the Tory team. They bring credibility that will make it hard for reluctant Conservatives to dismiss any deal as a sellout. On the Alliance side, the senior negotiator is Ray Speaker, a former Reform MP and Manning confidant from deep in the party's rural Alberta heartland. Speaker made up his mind that joining forces with the Tories was unavoidable back when the Alliance was tearing itself apart under Day's disastrous leadership, yet he never lost his status as a party icon. Like Mazankowski and Davis sitting across from him, Speaker's imprimatur on a merger plan would carry weight with his party's most suspicious stalwarts.

But the old men at the table, and the young leaders who put them to work, have precious little time. An election is likely next spring, with Paul Martin virtually a lock to be leading the Liberals. So Alliance and Tory insiders are looking for a deal in weeks, if not days. They need time for members of both parties to first vote by mail on whatever agreement is struck, and then a second time for a new leader. "Could it be done if something is decided in the next week or two? I would think, yes," said Alliance president Don Plett. "Beyond that, I'd have serious reservations."

Tory Senator David Tkachuk, who has been among the most vocal merger advocates, said raw fear of going up against the Martin-led Liberals is forcing both sides to bargain fast. "Nothing focuses your attention like the potential for decimation," he noted. Or, for a true-believing conservative dad, the prospect of watching your son grow up through successive terms of an unchallenged Paul Martin government.

Maclean's September 29, 2003