Iggy's (continuing) problem, Harper's opportunity

As others have pointed out, and as I’ve said myself, Ignatieff’s formal disavowal of any post-election coalition with the NDP and the Bloc does not mean he has sworn off trying to form a government with their support.

Indeed, if Harper does not win a majority, that is the almost certain result: though it’s always possible Harper might try to strike a deal with them himself, and not impossible they would accept, the greater probability by far is that a Conservative minority government would soon be defeated in the House. Depending on the numbers, and assuming Ignatieff could give the Governor General some assurance, sans coalition, of its stability, a Liberal minority government would then follow.

That’s fine. It’s how the system works. But it still presents Ignatieff with a problem, and Harper with an opportunity. The problem for Iggy is similar, though less acute, to that which bedeviled him so long as coalition talk was in the air. His strategy for winning left-leaning voters, who might otherwise vote NDP, depends upon insisting that they must vote Liberal to keep the Tories out — that unless the Liberals win the most seats, they are doomed to be governed by the Conservatives. But if in fact the Conservatives can be removed from power without giving the Liberals more seats — if the other parties can combine to defeat them in the House and put the Liberals in government in their place — then the NDP-leaning voter can vote Dipper in good conscience, and the traditional Liberal fear campaign loses its potency.

To be sure, Ignatieff can plead with voters to give him enough seats to persuade the Governor General to call upon him: without the cement of a coalition deal, he’ll need some other means of proving his ability to provide stable government. But it doesn’t have quite the same dire appeal as Us or Them.

That’s why Iggy is so reluctant to talk about what would happen if the Liberals don’t win the most seats. (Even the no-coalition pledge neglects to mention it, an elision which at first appeared as if it might have been intended to provide an escape hatch, but which I am accepting the party’s word does not.) And that’s why it’s perfectly fair game for Harper to talk it up. He just has to be less hysterical about it.

It’s not a matter of such parliamentary transfers of power, by a vote of the House rather than a vote of the people, being “illegitimate” — an argument he is in no position to maintain. And he’ll have a hard time keeping up the argument that Ignatieff is simply lying through his teeth for five weeks. The point is, he doesn’t need to. All he needs to do is point out that the most probable alternative to a Conservative majority is not a Liberal majority, but a Liberal minority, in cahoots with the NDP and the Bloc. It needn’t be a coalition, with New Democrats in cabinet and all that, but it would still very likely involve some sort of deal that would pull the Liberals to the left — particularly if the Liberals do not possess even the plurality of seats in the House, and must pitch the Governor General on their ability to hold a government together. (Of course, if by some miracle the Liberals seemed headed for a majority, that argument would be moot. But then Ignatieff would face a different problem: NDP switchers defecting back to the left to force him to work with the Dips.)

That’s Harper’s appeal to centre-right voters: Us or All of Them. But it also has the virtue of reminding left-wing voters of their options. And if he doesn’t, you may be sure Layton and Duceppe will. Iggy may have put the coalition monkey to bed, but he still has a problem on his hands.

CODA: The problem facing Harper until now has been this: so long as the choice appeared to be between a Conservative majority and a Conservative minority, a certain number of centre-right voters preferred the latter. That’s one reason he’s been unable to get above 40% in the polls.

But the election presents an opportunity to recast that choice, since it presumably removes the option of a Conservative minority: such a government would almost certainly be defeated at the first opportunity. So now Harper can present the choice as one between a Conservative majority and — on present standings — a Liberal minority, heavily dependent on the NDP and the Bloc.

That sort of government might sound perfectly fine to a lot of voters, but not to the ones he needs: centre-right, Lib-Con switchers. The ones who until now have been opting for a Conservative minority. He’s got to impress upon them that that’s no longer an option.

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