I'm not sure the "attack the witness" strategy works for the Conservatives on the F35 file. Never mind the jet purchase, the forever recurring dynamic of Harper vs apolitical bureaucrats only serves to reinforce other negative frames for this government. Yesterday, the Prime Minister was decidedly angry, a clear sign that this F35 debate is rife with risk for his side.
The Liberals have to tread carefully, because there is some rationale for new planes, which could turn this into a "support the troops" debate. That said, so long as the Liberals play this smartly, there is plenty of third party, sober, detached perspective to shield them from this attack line. Fact is, we now have people intimate with the process who support the Liberal position, who counter this "political" angle that Harper is now using to distract.
Williams told the Defence Committee yesterday that the Conservatives could have saved a whopping 3.2 billion on the planes, had they opened the plane purchase up to a competitive bidding process. An incredibly important number, when one considers Finlay calls the relatively small 1 billion Liberal health care commitment "reckless". What then, do we make of 3.2 billion which is essentially wasted, we get NOTHING for it? You can see why this F35 purchase is a potential albatross for the Conservatives, that threatens to undermine ANY attack they make towards the Liberals on the fiscal front.
The Conservative trump card is their perceived management of the economy. It is on this score that Harper towers over Ignatieff, and it explains why Conservatives like to talk up their economic record at every turn. However, this perception has the potential to unravel, the "planes, prisons and photo-ops" line threatens to undermine the "competent manager". If it does, Harper is essentially left for the taking, the main line breached, it could all unravel from there. What complicates it further for the government, their own expenditures have now given Ignatieff a certain amount of "free reign", in that he can offer attractive social polices, and still be shielded from the big spender tag, because the compare and contrast is obvious and stark. Attack the employment leave plan, well you've wasted 3.2 times that with your "reckless" plane purchase. The Conservative hysteria rings hollow, the Liberals can retort with strength, on every front. The debate reduced to a dueling expenditures, which in the END still works for the Liberals. A draw on fiscal "management", equals an overwhelming victory in the grand scheme.
Harper attacking the messenger, becoming bombastic, is proof positive that the PMO is very worried about how this F35 debate is shaping up. It creates problems for the Conservatives cornerstone reputation, but it also gives the Liberals the freedom to spend elsewhere, on more attractive electoral options, and lose NO ground on the deficit front. So long as the Liberals stay measured on this F35 file, these planes will become another powerful equalizer on terrain which the Conservatives can't afford to have compromised.