OTTAWA -- As the federal Conservative leadership race begins drawing party grandees into potential candidates' camps, former prime minister Stephen Harper appears to be taking a step to the side.

Harper has left his role with the fundraising arm of the federal Conservative party, posting a message to his social-media account thanking the Conservative Fund for its work.


"Their record of fundraising and expenditure management has been unparalleled in federal politics, with issues managed quickly and professionally," he wrote.

"It has been a pleasure to serve with them."

He said he looks forward to ongoing collaboration with the Conservatives through his work as chairman of the International Democratic Union, an alliance of centre-right political parties around the world.

It was a rare public comment on party matters from Harper since he resigned as Conservative leader in 2015, and came amid speculation that he'd stepped back so he could play a role in the current race to succeed leader Andrew Scheer -- as a director of the Fund, Harper was required to remain neutral.

But two sources close to Harper told The Canadian Press the decision to step aside dates back months and is linked to his concerns he occupies too large a role in the party's operations. The sources spoke on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to speak on Harper's behalf.

His decision does come as key figures in the conservative world are jockeying into positions either as candidates for the Tory leadership or on the teams supporting them.

The teams backing former Conservative cabinet ministers Erin O'Toole, Pierre Poilievre and Peter MacKay include operatives instrumental in Ontario and national conservative politics.

They include Jeff Ballingall, who runs right-wing online advocacy campaigns under the banner of "Canada Proud," and who is now working for O'Toole. MacKay is working with Ontario Premier Doug Ford's former campaign chief Michael Diamond.

Meanwhile, some Quebec Tories are waiting to see whether Jean Charest, a former federal Progressive Conservative leader and former Liberal Quebec premier, jumps into the race before they sign on to any campaigns.

Charest declined comment on the subject Thursday when asked about it as he attended the funeral of former Progressive Conservative cabinet minister John Crosbie.

"It's not the time," Charest said.

"The only indirect reference to it is that (Crosbie) supported me in '93, which I was flattered by."

Charest sought the leadership of the PCs in 1993 and came second to Kim Campbell, but took over after the party's shattering election loss that year reduced the Tories to two seats in the House of Commons. He led the Progressive Conservatives until 1998.

He then became leader of the Quebec Liberals, after extreme pressure to fly the federalist flag in his home province against popular separatist premier Lucien Bouchard, and served nine years as premier between 2003 and 2012.

Many prominent former Progressive Conservatives attended Crosbie's funeral; former prime minister Brian Mulroney gave a eulogy, and afterwards was spotted shaking hands with MacKay.

MacKay was the leader of the Progressive Conservative Party when it merged with the Canadian Alliance in 2003, creating the current Conservative party.

The merger also led to the creation, by Harper, of the Conservative Fund. It was set up to raise and manage the party's money, including the budget for its campaign and operations, separate from the party's national governing council.

Harper joined the small board of directors in 2016. The leader of the party also sits on the board; Andrew Scheer currently holds that spot.

While he and Harper get along, having Harper sit on a board that controlled the party's finances created an awkward situation for his successor as leader, according to the two people close to Harper.

Awkwardness turned into something more problematic when it emerged a stipend the party was paying Scheer was being used to pay private-school tuition for his children.

Harper had been unaware the money was being used that way and was furious. After word emerged publicly, an already embattled Scheer resigned as leader. The party's longtime executive director, who had approved the arrangement, resigned as well.

Tension over how the Conservative Fund is run has existed since it was created. Repeated efforts at party conventions to open it up to more oversight have failed. The issue with Scheer could put it back on the agenda at the next party convention.

Harper is not the only legendary Canadian conservative to announce an exit this week.

Preston Manning, the father of the Reform party, which would beget the Canadian Alliance, is retiring and leaving the board of a political training centre he founded in 2005.

The Manning Centre is also changing its name, it announced in a press release.

"This will not happen immediately, but we're working now to solicit ideas as we move forward to create a new name and new brand."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 16, 2020.

--With files from Holly McKenzie-Sutter in St. John's, N.L.