You've got to ask yourself one question: Do I feel lucky? Well, do ya, punk?

Layton doesn't have to outbluff Harper. He just has to outbluff Iggy.

Well you could knock me over with a feather: the Liberals will no longer support the government. Imagine that — an opposition party that opposes. Mind you, he didn’t actually say the Liberals would vote to defeat the government. Only that they would not support them. Still, let’s suppose the Liberals really will show up to vote in numbers sufficient to defeat the government, when the time comes.

That certainly seems to be the general supposition: This time they really mean it. An election now is all but certain. Etc. etc. And the reviews have not been kind…

Canada to pay the price for Ignatieff’s needs
Ignatieff’s folly
Liberals reading from a familiar script
He couldn’t have picked a worse time It’s all about vanity Ignatieff will lose if he can’t justify trip to the polls

Etc. etc.

I’d agree that Ignatieff would be a fool to force an election, for all the reasons that others are offering: It’s been less than a year since the last election. The public’s in no mood for one. The Liberals don’t have an issue to fight on. They’re not doing terribly well in the polls. The party still has some rebuilding to do. Etc. etc.

In fact, Liberals themselves were saying all these things until yesterday. So let’s consider the possibility that Iggy is not quite such a fool as all that — in other words, that the Grits have no desire for an election, and no intention of forcing one. As, of course, they can’t: for the hundredth time, you need all three opposition parties voting together to defeat the government.

And if there is one party that wants an election even less than the Grits, I’d wager, it’s the NDP. They’ve just come off two provincial election campaigns in BC and Nova Scotia. They’re headed into an important leadership campaign in Manitoba. Their poll numbers are sagging. They’re in no shape to fight an election. Possibly Ignatieff has noticed this.

And that’s what this is about: shifiting the focus off the Liberals, and onto the NDP.

The Dippers had great sport over the last couple of years advertising their eagerness to defeat the government and fight an election. And why not? They knew they’d never have to make good on their boasts, because they knew the Liberals didn’t have the stomach for it. And because the NDP always seemed to get to the mikes first, whenever the occasion arose, to declare their firm intention to vote against the government, the spotlight always fell on the Grits. Are you going to defeat the government, the press would ask? Well, are you? And whoever was Liberal leader would dither, and stall, and stare at his shoes, before finally confessing: er, no, actually.

So this time the Liberals are getting out of the blocks first. By commiting themselves to vote against the government — sorry, to no longer support the government — they hope to put the onus on the NDP (the Bloc is always ready to fight an election, with 86% of its expenses paid for by the taxpayer) to decide whether the government lives or dies. More particularly, they expect the NDP to cave, and spare them having to make good on their boast, in a reverse of their previous roles.

It’s a pretty good gambit — if you don’t want an election, tell the world how much you do. Si vis pacem, para bellum. They can spend the next month thumping their chests, riling up their supporters, rallying the anti-Conservative vote to their side. The only problem is: it’s a bluff, and everyone knows it. Possibly that’s why the Grits are being so public about it — to block their own retreat. The more they trumpet their eagerness for an election, the more humiliating any belated capitulation would be, and the more unlikely it becomes.

Unlikely, but not impossible. Or so the NDP may calculate. We look to be headed for an intriguing three-way game of chicken. The NDP and the Conservatives will now make a show of negotiating, but there’s no guarantees of what will happen. As of now, I’d say Harper has the strongest bargaining position, in the sense that he has least to fear from a fall election, and may even want one — to get it out of the way before next spring’s budget, which will have to impose some pretty severe spending cuts if we’re to rein in these runaway deficits.

So if you’re Harper, you probably offer some fairly desultory concessions, and see if the NDP picks them up. If they do, fine: the longer you’re Prime Minister, the longer you’re Prime Minister. If not, you take the high road into an election: “I offered the NDP the hand of cooperation, and yet they refused…”

But maybe Layton plays a little hardball of his own — not so much with Harper, as with Ignatieff. That is, he refuses Harper’s offer — or makes it known that he will, or that he might — and watches how Ignatieff squirms. Maybe he calculates Ignatieff’s all bluff — that he’ll fold, if called.

It’s a bit like that old joke about the two guys in the woods, who see a bear. You know: the one guy puts on his running shoes; the other guy says what are you doing, you can’t outrun a bear; the first guy says I don’t have to outrun him, I just have to outrun you. Layton doesn’t have to outbluff Harper. He just has to outbluff Iggy.

Maybe he’s right. But if he’s wrong — or if Iggy’s wrong about him — we go to the polls…