Notes on a crisis: The End

It’s over: the day, the decision, the crisis, the coalition, and Stephane Dion’s leadership. After the abortive putsch — constitutional as it may have been — the field is strewn with bodies, and the bloodletting has just begun.

After a day of skulking in the corridors of Parliament, I can tell you that the Grits no longer have the stomach for this fight. You could see it in the their body language, hear it in their voices. Their comments to reporters were all variations on a plea to the government to “help us in off this limb we have put ourselves out on.” I’m paraphrasing, of course: they were actually itemizing the things the government had to do to keep them from defeating it in when Parliament returns in January. But a day or two ago, there was nothing it could do. The die was cast. The train had left the station. There was no turning back.

Apparently, they didn’t quite think this thing through — to say the least. In particular, they did not take into account the possibility of prorogation. That’s to their credit, perhaps: it’s a bloody awful business, certainly undemocratic and arguably unconstitutional (though the Governor General’s decision has presumably settled that), and perhaps it didn’t occur to them that Harper could be so unscrupulous. That they failed to foresee that is as huge a tactical error as Harper’s failure to foresee the emergence of the coalition itself.

With Parliament prorogued, the coalition is dead. The only way they were going to make this thing stick, even temporarily, was by way of a speedy assumption of power, the glue that mends all breaks. But having lunged and missed, they will be very much on their back feet. I repeat: The coalition is over. I’ll be surprised if it lasts the week.

But don’t take my word for it. Two polls out today show that the coalition has backfired on its two main participants — hugely. Ekos has the Tories ahead by twenty points, 44-24, while Ipsos Reid puts the margin at an astounding 46-23. This is after the Tories had supposedly disgraced themselves by the “provocation” of cutting the political parties off the public teat, and by failing to provide adequate “stimulus.”

Ipsos numbers show, further, that 60% of the public opposes the coalition, 62% are “angry” with it for trying to take power, while 68% support the Governor General’s decision. The Grits can read the numbers as well as I can. There is no way they will return to this well.

Indeed, the caucus, after a three hour meeting this afternoon, seems to have other priorities in mind — namely forcing Dion from the leadership ASAP, rather than wait until the May convention. That’s easier said than done, and is tangled up in the race to succeed him. For it only makes sense, if he is to be replaced quickly, to replace him with a permanent leader, and if the decision were made today it would almost certainly be Michael Ignatieff, and as Bob Rae can’t abide that, he will be doing everything in his power to see to it that Dion stays in place.

But assume that Ignatieff — notably skeptical about the coalition — does take over. Is it to be imagined that he would wish to submit himself, should he become Prime Minister, to the dictates of Jack Layton and Gilles Duceppe? Not that there’s much danger of that. The coming collapse of the coalition will mean the Governor General would have no choice, should the opposition defeat the government over its budget in January, but to call fresh elections. And these disastrous polling numbers, if they stand up, make it highy unlikely that the opposition will do any such thing.

So the Tories have won this round, but by the ugliest of means. Was the Governor General right to be their enablers? I’m not sure she had any choice. There’s only one real test of confidence in our system, and that’s a vote of the Commons. The last such confidence vote, on the Throne Speech, was less than a week ago. So while it was common sense to assume that Harper was proroguing just to avoid losing the next one, it would take a nervy GG to disregard the advice of her First Minister without absolute cut-and-dried proof that had he had lost the House’s confidence.

Still, while there appear to be few if any formal conditions attached to the prorogation, she may well have attached some informal conditions — after all, what else did they talk about in the course of their two-and-a-half hour tete a tete? The sovereign has the right, as per Bagehot, “to be consulted, to encourage, and to warn.” She may well have warned him what would happen if he didn’t bring in a budget — and face a confidence test — at the first opportunity.

Harper should never have put the GG in this position. It would have been better from a number of perspectives for Harper to have faced the music in the Commons. But it’s at least better than demanding the GG call an election, as Harper might have tired. And, while the end does not justify the means, it would take a hard heart indeed not to cheer the death of the coalition.

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