There are some things you say that you can never take back. It doesn’t matter whether you meant what you said. You said it, and from that moment things can never be the same. This is how it is now, I think, with the Liberal Party of Canada.
For the past several weeks, various figures, mostly on the left of the party, have been openly speculating about the possibility of forming a coalition government with the NDP after the next election. Not a mere non-aggression pact, such as the one between the Ontario Liberal and New Democratic parties 25 years ago—the object of some pointed public reminiscing by Bob Rae—but a full-blown coalition: common program of government, New Democrats in cabinet, the works.
This mounting fever of speculation having gone unchallenged by the leader—after much thought, Michael Ignatieff eventually allowed as how a coalition could not be ruled out, though he had appeared to do just that a year ago—it should not have been entirely surprising to find some willing to go further still. As long as we’re talking about forming a coalition after the election, why not a coalition before the election—divide up the seats, agree on a slate of candidates, the works? In which case, why not merge the parties altogether?
When the news broke that indeed such a project was being discussed, and not just by anyone, but by senior figures in both parties, including former leaders Jean Chrétien and Ed Broadbent, the general reaction was incredulity. You want us to believe a story whose only named source is Warren Kinsella? Later, when the truth of it could no longer be denied, it was derided as old news. Hadn’t Roy Romanow been talking this way for years? Yawn.
I’m sorry. When a former prime minister lets it be known that he has given up on the party he led to three majorities, and wants to merge it with another party, that is not something that can be dismissed, or forgotten. It may be unwise, it may be unworkable, but that does not mean that people in both parties—serious people, not fringe cranks—are not thinking about it, or that they will not persist in the endeavour. This cannot be without consequence. The prospect having been raised in such a spectacular fashion, it cannot be unraised. A chain of events has been set in motion, with a momentum and a logic whose endpoint, I predict, is neither coalition nor merger, but the destruction of the Liberal party.
Consider first the implications of a simple coalition—a coalition struck not in the chaotic aftermath of an indecisive election, but anticipated well in advance. For left-leaning voters tempted to stray into the NDP camp, there is no longer any reason to stick with the Liberals, as they have been traditionally admonished, just to keep the Conservatives out: the coalition can see to that now. Indeed, as Chantal Hébert has pointed out, all the more reason to vote NDP, to strengthen its hand in coalition talks. Meanwhile, right-leaning voters will consider the spectacle of a cabinet filled with the likes of Libby Davies and Pat Martin, and recoil.
The same split between left and right will be played out within the party. The Liberal party is not a party that forms coalitions. It is one. It is not a party of the left, but of the left and right: a cumbersomely broad tent that, so long as the party remained in power, or near it, could nevertheless be kept aloft. The likelihood of an extended stay in opposition, with the attendant need to define itself more sharply, could be predicted to expose the party’s divisions. But so stark a choice as a coalition-merger with the NDP is sure to crack them wide open.
And as Liberal support continues to bleed away, this can only grow worse. The left will take this as further evidence of the necessity of striking some sort of deal with the NDP. The right can be expected to push back just as hard: though it is unlikely to prevail, it can probably forestall any decision until after the election. But what are the party’s chances in an election in which it is so painfully divided?
And what is the NDP’s likely response to that calamity? It is true that it was the NDP that first approached the Liberals about a coalition, in the parliamentary crisis of November 2008. And, to be sure, the NDP has benefited handsomely from the recent resurgence of interest in the idea: it is the centre of everyone’s attention, no longer merely a party of protest but potentially taking a hand in government. But that does not mean it will remain committed to the project—or that it ever was.
I do not think it is the ambition of the present NDP leadership to play helpmate to the Grits. Their aim is to replace them. It has served their purposes to keep the coalition talk alive, not least for the mischief it causes inside the Liberal party. But if the Liberal slide continues, the Dips will have less and less incentive to agree to anything. Rather, they will raise their demands, and raise them again, until at last they walk away from the talks outright, and leave the Liberals to collapse.
It is a dismal fate for Liberals to contemplate. But by not firmly quashing any talk of coalition as soon as it got started, Ignatieff has lost control of events, as surely as he has lost control of the party. I fear it is too late now.