Is Stephen Harper throwing Nigel Wright under the bus?

It appears that the Tories have a new strategy in their defence in the ongoing Senate expense scandal: relentlessly vilify Prime Minister Stephen Harper's former chief of staff Nigel Wright.

In the House of Commons, on Tuesday, Harper led the most scathing attack against his former right-hand man we've seen since Wright admitted to gifting Senator Mike Duffy $90,000 to repay taxpayers for alleged inappropriate expense claims.

"From our side there is one person responsible for this deception. That person is Mr. Wright by his own admission," the prime minister said.

"For that reason...Mr. Wright no longer works for us, Mr. Duffy shouldn't either."

[ Related: The Senate scandal and three really damaging narratives for Stephen Harper ]

The tone of the comments about Nigel Wright today are a stark difference from what we heard earlier this year.

Here's a bit of a recap of what the Harper government had previously said about Wright. As you'll see, it appears that the narrative has evolved over the past few months.

May 15:

- Statement from Andrew MacDougall, former Director of Communications for the PMO, on the day revelations about Nigel Wright's $90,000 cheque to Mike Duffy surfaced (Source: Toronto Star)

"Mr. Duffy agreed to repay the expenses because it was the right thing to do. However, Mr. Duffy was unable to make a timely repayment.

Mr. Wright therefore wrote a cheque from his personal account for the full amount owing so that Mr. Duffy could repay the outstanding amount."

May 16:

- Statement from Andrew MacDougall, former Director of Communications for the PMO. (Source: Globe and Mail)

“Mr. Wright will not be resigning

Mr. Wright has the full support of the Prime Minister.”

May 19:

- Statement from Prime Minister Stephen Harper on the day Nigel Wright announced his resignation. (Source: CBC News)

"It is with great regret that I have accepted the resignation of Nigel Wright as my Chief of Staff. I accept that Nigel believed he was acting in the public interest, but I understand the decision he has taken to resign. I want to thank Nigel for his tremendous contribution to our Government over the past two and a half years."

- Tweets from Tory cabinet ministers on the day Nigel Wright announced his resignation

June 5:

- Stephen Harper in the House of Commons

"Mr. Wright was using his personal money to make sure the taxpayers were reimbursed. That is a decision he took on his own that he chose not to inform me about. He admits that was an error in judgment, and he will be accountable to the Ethics Commissioner for that decision."

October 24:

- Stephen Harper in the House of Commons

"Mr. Wright, to his credit, recognized that decision was totally wrong and he has resigned."

October 28:

- Stephen Harper during a radio interview on News 95.7

"Look, I think the responsibility whenever things go wrong is for us to take appropriate action. As you know, I had a chief of staff who made an inappropriate payment to Mr. Duffy. He was dismissed."

After Question Period on Tuesday, Liberal insider and Sun News analyst Warren Kinsella tweeted that he was starting to feel sorry for Wright:

Kinsella followed up with a quick post on his website:

"I’m doing Sunday’s column about what Stephen Harper did to Nigel Wright in the House this afternoon," he wrote.

"I’ve seen some appalling stuff in Ottawa, over the years, but that ranked up there. Disgusting and dishonest."

The Toronto Star's Tonda MacCharles suggested that Harper's performance in the House was part of his new plan of action.

"The prime minister portrayed himself as a man dismayed by the turn of events, frustrated by greed and delays in the Senate and betrayed by two men who abused his trust," she wrote in her column on Tuesday.

"It was all part of a calculated strategy to deflect blame away from the prime minister, his senior staff and top party officials as the Conservatives head into a weekend convention in Calgary."

[ Related: Canadians showing little sympathy for Senators Duffy, Wallin and Brazeau ]

Former Conservative member of Parliament Brent Rathgeber perhaps said it best, in his blog, saying that, while he believes that Harper didn't know about the $90,000 cheque, it's time for him to take responsibility.

"Given the growing number of senior confidants of the Prime Minister who were either directly involved or in the know, it is no longer acceptable to blame the entire debacle on a rogue Chief of Staff, no matter how clear you are when you blame him!" the now independent MP wrote.

"Whichever scenario has led to this, it is the Prime Minister who is responsible to Parliament for the operation of the PMO and the actions of its employees. The Prime Minster is responsible for both the ethical standards and the general competence of those within his office. Nigel Wright cannot have taken “full responsibility” for this fiasco; it is the Prime Minister who is responsible for him and every other employee complicit in, or wilfully blind to, what was going on.

"It is time for the PM to man up, take responsibility, clean house, and promise greater transparency and less top-down control in the future. That would restore Canada’s commitment to Responsible Government and the Prime Minister’s reputation as a leader."

Taking responsibility for what happened in his office?

It might just be a radical enough idea to work.

(Photo courtesy of the Canadian Press)

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