They say revenge is a dish best eaten cold, and Denis Coderre has always been fond of generous portions. There was a weekend between Sept. 25, when Michael Ignatieff stopped taking Coderre’s advice on Liberal candidate nominations in two key Montreal ridings, and Sept. 28, when Coderre convened a news conference to resign as Ignatieff’s Quebec lieutenant. During that time, sources say, the Liberal leader telephoned his pugnacious deputy repeatedly. Coderre wouldn’t take the calls. He preferred to plan his revenge at leisure.
So on Monday, Coderre, a scrappy Liberal lifer whose Rolodex is as formidable as his self-regard, told a national television audience he could no longer run his leader’s Quebec operation or serve as his parliamentary defence critic because he had consistently been “short-circuited” by “the leader’s inner circle in Toronto.” Hours later, five other Liberal officials in Quebec with ties to Coderre quit their own positions. Le Devoir’s headline the next day said the party had been “decapitated” in Quebec.
The good news, then, is that there is actually somebody in today’s Liberal party who can plan his way out of a paper bag. The bad news: his target is his own leader. “It’s another great day in the life of the leader of the opposition,” Ignatieff told reporters, wearily.
The timing of Coderre’s blow only added to the greatness. Last week should have been filled with celebrations for the Liberals: they finally tabled a motion of no-confidence against the Harper government. Harper has been in power for three years and eight months and, outside last December’s bizarre attempt to form a coalition to replace him, the Liberals had never moved in Parliament to take the PM down before. It was mostly a hollow gesture, given that the NDP was promising to vote with the Conservatives and avoid an election.
At this point Ignatieff might be more grateful for the reprieve from a date with the electorate than Harper is. Since the Liberal leader announced in September he would no longer support the government, the Conservatives have pulled away from a statistical deadlock to open a consistent lead of six or seven points. The Conservatives also hold a steady lead in Ontario, where one-third of the seats in Parliament are won and lost, while the Bloc Québécois remains strong enough in Quebec to deny the Liberals any hope of substantial gains.
That grim Quebec situation was what sparked the confrontation between Coderre and Ignatieff. The Liberals hold 14 seats in the province; if they’re to present a credible fresh face it has to be in those ridings or in fewer than a dozen others across the rest of Quebec where they have any hope of making gains. In Outremont, a cozy Montreal enclave where the Liberals have lately fallen out of a winning habit, former justice minister Martin Cauchon sought to return to politics five years after he retired. Coderre believed a fresher face was needed, so he dug up a little-known businesswoman, Nathalie Le Prohon, to run in Cauchon’s place.
But there isn’t a Liberal in Canada who doesn’t know that Cauchon, 47, and Coderre, 46, are rivals with leadership ambitions who can’t both have the top job. (Whether either of them should bother getting their hopes up is a question for another day.) Cauchon, an urbane lawyer, turned out to have friends willing to stick up for him, including Bob Rae and the man whose campaigns used to be run by Rae’s brother, John—Jean Chrétien. Chrétien called Coderre and chewed him out. Coderre hung up on his old boss. Big mistake.
Coderre, it turns out, is right to complain that Liberals in Toronto take an interest in the party’s operations. One is Alfred Apps, the party’s president. With the approval of the party’s national executive, he told Ignatieff a coherent system of local candidate selections had to take precedence over the whims and grudges of a regional strongman. Cauchon was invited to run for the nomination in Outremont, which was all he’d wanted all along. (Le Prohon was invited to run in another riding that Coderre had briefly offered Cauchon as a consolation prize.) Unfortunately for Ignatieff, he reached the solution he should have defended from the outset only after defending Coderre’s strong-arm tactics for three days.
The Liberals have been left rattled by the whole experience. A party struggling to lay a glove on the Conservative Prime Minister spent last week punching itself senseless instead.
Ignatieff’s ability to run a tight ship remains open to question. In June, he postponed a confrontation with Harper because he wasn’t ready. Now it is October and he is not any readier. March anyone?