The next coalition? Why not Harper and Ignatieff?

Ignatieff needs to dissuade Harper from calling an election until the Liberals recover

The next coalition? Why not Harper and Ignatieff?

If I were a supporter of Bob Rae, I’d be inclined to feel I’d been had. Rae was eased out of the race to succeed Stéphane Dion as Liberal leader, you’ll recall, by the onrushing prospect of an election. The Harper government was sure to fall over the Jan. 27 budget, it was said. This was no time for a leisurely, five-month leadership race. We need a permanent leader, this instant. Hence Michael Ignatieff.

Well now, it’s been a week since Ignatieff’s—what should we call it? Appointment? Installation? Inevitability?—and what message has he been sending ever since? That he will do everything in his power to ensure the budget is not defeated, the government does not fall, and above all that there is no election.

The Prime Minister’s post-prorogation overtures, to the effect that the “big national parties” ought to work together “to fix the economy,” have been met, not with the furious accusations of bad faith they might have occasioned not so long ago, but with an audible sigh of relief. First Ignatieff met with Harper. Then his top finance critics were dispatched to meet with the finance minister, emerging afterwards to declare themselves filled with hope at what they had heard.

Not that it will be any comfort to Rae, but I think Ignatieff has it exactly right. Coming off their worst defeat since Confederation, without much in the way of policies or organization, and with all of their well-advertised fundraising difficulties, the Liberals are in no condition to fight an election and he knows it.

Moreover, the tripartite coalition that was supposed to be the alternative is clearly dormant, if not expired. Ignatieff hardly bothers even to mention it anymore. He can read the polls, showing upwards of 60 per cent of the public hostile to the coalition taking power—assuming the Governor General were even disposed to call upon it, of which there is some doubt.

The problem, from Ignatieff’s perspective, is that his coalition partners seem unwilling to give him up. The more he pulls away, the more they seek to clutch him to their ghastly bosom. “Of course,” they wink, “of course, he has to say that, but . . .” And then they remind everyone that his signature, along with that of every member of his caucus, is on that letter to the Governor General committing the Liberals to form a coalition government, in partnership with the NDP and the Bloc Québécois.

So even as the coalition fades to practical insignificance, Ignatieff must be concerned that the public will continue to associate him and his party with it all the same. And if his erstwhile partners don’t do their best to remind people, the Conservatives surely will.

At the same time, for all of Ignatieff’s anxiety to avoid an election, he can have little assurance that Stephen Harper feels likewise. Whatever responsibility Harper should bear for igniting the crisis of recent weeks, he emerges from it in measurably stronger shape, with a lead in some polls of 20 percentage points or more. That may not hold—one poll shows the Grits closing the gap since Ignatieff’s, um, assumption—and the economy is obviously a wild card. But if he’s in anything like the same position six weeks from now, he’ll find some way to bring about his government’s defeat.

So Ignatieff has two challenges: to break with the coalition once and for all, in a way that leaves no room for doubt in the public mind; and to somehow dissuade Harper from forcing an election. I think the answer to the first is to pick a fight with the NDP—to force them to break from him. And the way to do that, achieving the second objective in the bargain, is to form a coalition with the Conservatives.

Well, not a coalition. Just an understanding, an entente, if you will, that the Liberals will not defeat the government—and that Harper will not dissolve Parliament—for some specified period, nine months, a year, whatever time Ignatieff thinks it takes to get his party back in fighting trim. Only by firmly ruling out an election well in advance can he avoid enduring the humiliating series of climbdowns that doomed his predecessor.

This would be a service, not only to his party, but the country. At the root of this Parliament’s instability is one thing: the present enfeebled state of the Liberal party. It was Liberal weakness that Harper sought to exploit, as everyone knows, in the fall statement; but the NDP and the Bloc were exploiting that same weakness when they rolled Dion into joining the coalition. That each side overreached does not mean either will not be tempted to do the same thing again, unless and until the Liberals can be rebuilt into a party that has no fear of an election.

It’s not entirely clear to me what Ignatieff can bring to such an agreement. But it may suit Harper to take him up on it—to rehabilitate his image as a practical, consensus-seeking politician; to share the blame for any economic hardship that may be coming; to govern. And Ignatieff has one trump card: the Senate, where the Liberals retain a majority—for now. True, Harper can stack it with Tories, and go on doing so until the balance tips in his favour, sometime in 2010. But he has to stay in power to do that, and in the process does serious harm to his reformist credentials. What if Ignatieff were instead to commit his party to pass Conservative legislation requiring senators to be elected?

However he goes about it, it’s clear that Ignatieff needs Harper to help him solve the two riddles I have described. The only question is whether Harper needs him.