In politics, perception is reality and the truth is negotiable.

That perfectly sums up Stephen Harper’s bitter showdown with Sen. Mike Duffy.

The perception is that the Prime Minister HAD to know 13 of his staff were doing SOMETHING to defuse the uncomfortable optics of Duffy’s excessive entitlement claims and the need for a speedy repayment.

The truth is that Harper probably didn’t know about it – at least in the sense a brave staffer took him aside and showed him a copy of the personal cheque with Nigel Wright’s signature and explained his chief of staff’s boneheaded act of damage control. 

And so we’re left in a fine mess filled with suspicions, nagging doubts and headscratching moves by two antagonists who are equally furious with betrayals by the other side. Peace will never be possible.

But this much is clearer.

When stressed-out  Mike Duffy refused the blindfold and returned a taunting volley of verbal buckshot at his firing squad Tuesday, it had an unmistakable ring of truth.

Others strapped without notice into the PMO ejector seat relate similar ostracization experiences from Harper staff. The more politically toxic their situation became, the faster and bloodier their execution.

But be wary of commentators who view the fallout from Duffy’s rant as a graveyard plot with Harper’s credibility carved on the tombstone.

This is not yet a lasting political or electoral threat to the prime minister.

Voters are not stupid, but they absorb information selectively, sort of like my pet dog. He ignores all conversation except when he hears ‘food’ or ‘walk’ and then his ears perk up and he starts running in circles.

The public listening to the protestations of the coddled trio who landed a cushy job under questionable pretenses will hear “gross negligence” and “suspended” and “without pay” and “Harper” – and they may feel the right thing was done.

The fact this was an orchestrated by goons in Harper’s office who ignored judicial process may not matter as much given the low public esteem reserved for the senatorial trio up for suspension.  

That’s why Harper will undoubtedly stick to his line that the payoff was, to his knowledge, a solo act.  He will insist, and there’s no proof to the contrary, that he ordered the money repaid and didn’t have a clue his own chief of staff and a dozen minions were crafting an entire media strategy to accompany the $90,000 cheque.

As long as Harper can knock down the perception he was guiding the Duffy disaster by remote control, the damage to his government could be short-lived. 

But if there’s more, well, look out. Should former Queen’s University quarterback Donald Bayne, now serving as Duffy’s lawyer,  still have enough arm to throw a few long bombs which implicate Harper more directly in the scandal, this will become a crisis of national confidence.   

Then the truth won’t be negotiable, the perception of an untrustworthy prime minister will stick and the current opposition field day will last for two more years.