Last week, Michael Ignatieff publicly and semi-publicly endorsed the coalition and Stephane Dion. Reluctantly or not, he signed his name to the deal in a letter to the Governor General. He is now widely assumed to be less than enthusiastic about leading a coalition government. And Stephen Harper is making public overtures in his direction.
So which will it be? Will he side with the coalition he still contractually stands behind? Or will he entertain negotiations with a Prime Minister his party has damned as completely unworthy of trust? Split the difference and abstain from a budget vote, you say?
“I can’t assure you of anything,” Mr. Ignatieff said when the economic statement was introduced. “I’ll just tell you what I know about the mood of my party. We are tired of sitting down. Is that clear?”
If you remove that from the list then, the choices are fairly straightforward. Negotiation. Coalition (or Election). And therein lies the first real test of Ignatieff’s leadership.
The pivotal test of the American election is supposed to have been the economic crisis. John McCain moved dramatically and, it would turn out, hopelessly. He aimed to seem decisive. He ended up seeming dizzy. Conversely, Obama was “Mr. Cool.” He was engaged, but calm. He appeared relaxed, confident and in control.
The easy comparisons would be of McCain to Bob Rae and Obama to Ignatieff. That is perhaps what the Ignatieff team means to project. But then there’s a thin line between calm and distant. And where Obama had only to appear in control, win an election and then prepare for decisions he will not be in a position to make until January, Ignatieff has to make decisions imminently. Liberal caucus will meet tomorrow. The “campaign” pitting the coalition against Harper is well underway. If the Liberals hope to win public support for the coalition, they will have to do so enthusiastically, unequivocally and immediately.
Negotiating with the Prime Minister might be the statesmanlike thing to do, but then what of Mr. Ignatieff’s previous commitments?
The coalition might be the principled thing to pursue, but then what of Ignatieff’s relative silence these last few days?
There is surely still opportunity for him to show honourable, reasonable leadership. But it seems at this moment he has left himself a remarkably narrow path to get there. So narrow you might have a difficult time imagining said path’s precise parameters. But then perhaps that’s why Ignatieff is leader and you are not.