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Quebec keeps Conservatives at 10 seats, denying Harper a majority

Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper, a consummate political strategist, knows that it's been historically impossible over the last century for the Tories to form a majority government without electing at least a couple of dozen members of Parliament in Quebec.

That truism was proved again tonight as Harper's Conservatives won (or are leading) in just 10 Quebec ridings, and for the second consecutive general election have fallen short of obtaining a majority of seats in the House of Commons.

Two-and-a-half years ago, Harper's Conservatives defeated Paul Martin's Liberals and fashioned a slim minority government in part because the Tories won 10 seats in la belle province. Previously they held none.

Then, last September, the Conservatives won a byelection in Roberval-Lac Saint Jean, thereby boosting their Quebec caucus to 11 members. Who could blame Harper for thinking that the tide was turning his way, and that the 2008 general election would deliver the requisite number of Quebec seats to enable him to win a parliamentary majority?

It was not to be. Instead of building on the small foothold they secured in Quebec in 2006, the Conservatives tonight were unable to add any new seats, and indeed lost one riding that was captured two years ago.

Four Tory cabinet ministers won re-election in Quebec — Lawrence Cannon, the transport minister from Pontiac; Jean-Pierre Blackburn, minister of labour and housing from Jonquiere-Alma; Christian Paradis, minister of public works from Megantic-L'Erable; and Josee Verner, heritage minister from Louis-Saint Laurent — but another member of the privy council, Michel Fortier, minister of international trade, was unsuccessful in his bid to obtain a House of Commons seat.

Early in 2006, Harper, needing representation from the city of Montreal in the federal government, put Fortier in his cabinet and subsequently named him to the Senate. He resigned the latter appointment to contest the riding of Vaudreuil-Soulanges, but he finished second tonight to a Bloc Quebecois candidate.

Silvie Boucher, the parliamentary secretary to the prime minister, from Beauport-Limoilu, was leading by about 500 votes with about half the polls counted when this story was filed; and four backbenchers were declared elected: Denis Lebel in Roberval-Lac Saint Jean; Maxime Bernier — yes, he of Julie Couillard fame and the former minister of foreign affairs — in Beauce; Jacques Gourde in Lotbiniere-Chutes-de la Chaudiere; and Steven Blaney in Levis-Bellechasse.

The sole Quebec Conservative MP to lose his seat was Luc Harvey, MP for Louis-Hebert, who also fell to the Bloc.

In the last century, five Conservative or Progressive Conservative prime ministers have headed majority governments, and all captured at least two dozen Quebec seats. In 1911, Robert Borden snared 27 ridings in Quebec; in 1930, R.B. Bennett took 24; in 1958, John Diefenbaker held 50; and in 1984 and 1988, Brian Mulroney, won 58 and 63 respectively.

The Tory prime ministers who were kept to minorities were usually kept to about a dozen or fewer Quebec seats. Diefenbaker, in 1957 and 1962, took just nine and 14 respectively; Arthur Meighen captured four in 1925; Joe Clark secured a paltry two in 1979.

Harper, of course, captured 10 in 2006, and he remains stuck on that number tonight.

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