Make no mistake. Michael Ignatieff, Bob Rae and Dominic LeBlanc all want to be Prime Minister one day. They just don’t necessarily want that day to be May 2.
None of them is saying that, of course (or at least not in public). But let’s be frank. When these men threw their names in the race to replace Stéphane Dion as the top Liberal, the job posting was pretty clear: Leader of the Official Opposition. Not Leader of a Temporary Coalition Between Everyone Other Than Stephen Harper That Suddenly Makes Me Prime Minister. The latter remains a real possibility, even after today’s developments. Yes, Harper managed to convince the Governor General to prorogue Parliament until Jan. 26, buying his Conservatives seven more weeks of power. But the Liberals and the NDP, with a wink and a handshake from the Bloc Quebecois, are still vowing to topple his minority and install Dion as acting prime minister until the Liberal leadership convention next spring. After that, the winning Grit—Ignatieff, Rae or LeBlanc—would move directly into 24 Sussex Drive. Right down the hall from Jack Layton and Gilles Duceppe.
Forgive the top contenders, then, if they’re not jumping for joy at the revamped job description. All three are suddenly backed into a political corner, well aware that any move they make will disappoint a large swath of potential supporters. Embrace the coalition? Must be a separatist sympathizer. Concede to Harper? Traitor. Support Dion as a temporary solution? Must be weak and incompetent (and unable to return movies on time). “The whole thing is just fraught with danger for all the leadership candidates,” says Stephen LeDrew, former president of the Liberal Party of Canada. “They don’t want to have dust all over their clothes having gone through this coalition and being accused of playing footsies with the Bloc and the NDP.”
Rae seems to be the least worried of the three. He’s spent the past two days telling everyone who will listen that “the coalition is a good idea.” After today’s Liberal caucus meeting, he was the first MP to address reporters. “Clearly we have work to do with respect to talking to Canadians about our plan and our approach, and we have work to do talking to Canadians about what the alternatives are,” he said. “We’re going to be working with our coalition partners to make sure we’ve got a great plan for Canadians, and that it’s very specific and very detailed. Mr. Harper can do his work, but I frankly don’t regard his government as legitimate anymore. This is a man who is afraid to show up for work.”
To be fair, Rae’s main leadership rival—Ignatieff—looked a bit frightened today. When it was his turn at the mic, the former Harvard prof chose his words carefully, suggesting, ever so cautiously, that the coalition may be a means to and end, but not necessarily the end itself. Earlier in the day, numerous reports said the leadership front-runner had already spoken out against the coalition behind closed doors. In front of the cameras, however, his message was more nuanced. “It’s the only tool that’s got us anywhere,” he said of the coalition. “There is absolutely no question that the Prime Minister would not have walked back down, as he admitted today, from partisan, divisive policies had he not been faced with a very critical weapon of dissuasion. And I want to make it clear that this caucus is as one in maintaining the credibility of that dissuasive instrument. We will maintain the possibility of reaching out, but you cannot get this government to listen and respond unless the government is perfectly certain of the unity of purpose of this caucus.”
Ignatieff also promised to spend the next two months “thinking thoughtfully and responsibly about the challenges we face” and the best way to face those challenges. When asked if Ignatieff would prefer to negotiate with Harper, rather than oust him with a coalition, Ignatieff’s spokeswoman answered this way: “I can’t go beyond anything that Michael said today, and I think he made his point very clearly: the support for this coalition and the unity of the party is critical. Mr. Harper has made it clear that, up until the point the coalition came together, he wasn’t willing to work with Parliament. And I think Michael’s point was that the bringing together of this coalition has forced Mr. Harper to the point where he is willing to work with Parliament.”
Translation? “It seems as though Bob is jumping in with both feet while Ignatieff is just dipping his toe in the water,” LeDrew says. “But I think both of them are breathing a big sigh of relief today. In their heart of hearts, they don’t want to have to wear this coalition government.”
As for contender No. 3, LeBlanc has repeatedly thrown his support behind the coalition over the past week. The New Brunswick MP stayed away from reporters today and did not return a phone call from Maclean’s, but of one of his key supporters, Scott Reid, says Leblanc’s stance has not changed in light of Parliament’s sudden halt. “The Liberals are going to want to come together and say: ‘Our circumstances have changed, but the resolve of the coalition should proceed and Stephen Harper has to be replaced,’ ” says Reid, a former senior advisor to Prime Minister Paul Martin. “The challenge now for the leadership candidates, and the entire caucus, is to determine how to make that case. We know that there is going to have to be a rethink as to how the coalition is marketed and a reconfirmation among the Liberal Party in favour of the coalition.”
The country will be watching three Liberals in particular. And they know it.