NDP leadership: toward a Topp-Mulcair alliance?

'It has to be either Brian or Thomas'

How intriguing Daniel Leblanc’s new Globe story on the NDP leadership campaign is. Here are two Quebec MPs, each supporting a different candidate, who say the final choice must come down to one of two men: Brian Topp or Thomas Mulcair. (I keep listing Topp first for the sole purpose of getting a rise out of Mulcair, and I have watched him long enough to have no doubt it’s working. Punditry is fun.)

Françoise Boivin, Topp supporter: “It has to be either Brian or Thomas. I feel we have better odds of forming the next government with Brian Topp, but I don’t think we’d do badly with Thomas Mulcair.”

Tarik Brahmi, Mulcair supporter: ““I’m behind Thomas Mulcair. However, I’d prefer if the winner were Brian Topp instead of everyone’s second choice.”

Two things seem to be going on here. (I say “seem to be” because none of the voter ID that’s been released publicly seems to be accurate enough to give anybody a solid sense of each candidate’s support. So there’s a lot of guesswork in anyone’s analysis.)

1. Quebec New Democrats have decided, understandably, that securing the unprecedented 2011 breakthrough in Quebec must be Job One for a new leader, and that a leader who cannot pass as a Quebecer — at least as much of a Quebecer as Jack Layton of Hudson by way of Toronto-Danforth — cannot do that. Here, it’s striking that Brahmi, at least, believes Brian Topp clears that hurdle. There has been some attempt by other New Democrats, and by a few Quebec commentators, to shrink the circle of acceptable candidates down to a diameter of 1 Mulcair. Brahmi, at least, isn’t buying it.

2. When Brahmi says he supports Mulcair, Topp, and “everyone’s second choice” in that order, he’s suggesting he doesn’t think Topp is everybody’s second choice. Indeed, my own hunch for a while has been that Peggy Nash will be the consensus candidate to whom everyone’s votes slide in the end, simply because Nash looks like the sort of New Democrat New Democrats think of when they try to think of a New Democrat. (Stop me if I get too scientifically rigorous.) As a bonus, the policy work I’ve seen from Nash seems unusually thoughtful and serious, but I’m assuming that counts for close to nothing in a leadership contest.

But at the secret Maclean’s nerve centre, buried into the side of a mountain in Ottawa, we’ve all been surprised by the depth and enthusiasm of Paul Dewar’s support. He has roots in the party and in Ottawa, where a lot of New Democrats have done time, and he’s easy to like. Maybe he’s “everyone’s second choice,” and that would certainly explain why the party’s Quebec contingent is in a mood to be flexible, because Dewar’s French is worse than Stéphane Dion’s English.

Objectively, there’s room for Topp and Mulcair to argue that each’s supporters must prefer the other over the rest of the field. This argument would have considerable traction outside Quebec, because it’s not only Quebecers who view the party’s 58 Quebec seats as a prize worth trying to preserve. One obstacle is that Topp and Mulcair have not shown conspicuous fondness for each other. (Mulcair looked like the heir apparent for a couple of years there, but then suddenly last summer Topp looked like the party brass’s designated blocker.)

As a bonus, my reading of the leader selection process suggests there’ll be some room for cajoling of support between ballots on the day of the vote. So the arguments I’ve rehearsed here, for now unstated by most New Democrats, could be made quite forcefully on the convention floor and, on Twitter, to party members across the country, on the fateful day.