Notes on a crisis: Where have you gone, John Manley?

The Liberal Party turns its lonely eyes to you. Or might.

By now it is clear — especially after tonight’s catastrophic performance by Stephane Dion — that the coalition is toast. Assuming Harper seeks, and obtains, the Governor General’s assent to prorogue Parliament until next month, there will be no quick assumption of power, the glue that might at least hold the Liberals together, if not the coalition. But without it, and in view of the decidedly cool — in some places, red hot — public response to the proposal, Liberal nerves are starting to crack.

Guelph MP Frank Valeriote has come out publicly against the idea — to the conspicuous applause of Warren Kinsella, Ignatieff supporter and Chretien diehard. Toronto area MPs Judy Sgro and Jim Karygiannis have also publicly expressed misgivings. Ignatieff himself is widely reported to be distancing himself from the proposal, as have Frank McKenna — and Manley. And we’re only two days in.

I am willing to bet much of the party rank and file have no use for the coalition idea, and even less for the destruction it will wreak on the party. They will be casting about desperately, looking for someone to save them from ruin. The logical avenue for this is the leadership race. But having publicly endorsed the deal, all three current candidates are hopelessly compromised. It will be difficult, if not impossible, for them to row back from their position with their credibility intact.

Let a candidate of stature enter the race on an anti-coalition platform, and he or she would instantly attract a wave of support. Until now, the Ignatieff and Rae machines would have precluded any serious challenge. But the party is in such turmoil after the events of recent days that the situation has suddenly become a lot more fluid.

But who? Martin Cauchon? As a federalist from Quebec, he’d help repair the damage to the party’s base in that province. But a Manley candidacy would be particularly compelling, in view of another factor: the sharp decline in Stephen Harper’s fortunes. Such is the damage he has sustained that the centre-right vote is now very much in play — provided the Liberals can arrest the lurch to the left implied by their participation in the coalition, and provided they can put forward a credible centre-right leader. The candidate that most readily fits that description: John Manley.

What’s that rustling sound? Is that a draft?

UPDATE: Threat of defections shifts the sands beneath Dion’s feet:

The Liberals’ chief whip is asking his MPs not to abandon the party as concerns grow about dissatisfaction over Stéphane Dion’s leadership.

At a closed-door caucus meeting yesterday morning, Rodger Cuzner said that if rival parties approach MPs about crossing the floor “we want to hear about them first” – a recognition of how fragile things are for the Liberals under Mr. Dion.

A caucus insider said there is growing unease in the party with the accord reached between the Liberals, the NDP and the Bloc Québécois as Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Tories mount a public-relations war against the coalition, which they are characterizing as an alliance with the separatists.

One Liberal MP said that if Mr. Dion does not prevail and become leader and prime minister of the proposed coalition government, “he can’t stay until May.”

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