Notes on a crisis: Who will save the Liberals from themselves?

Who will save the Liberals from themselves?

So, just to review the bidding: If the coalition has its way, we would be governed by a party that won 26% of the vote barely six weeks ago, that has just a quarter of the seats in the Commons, that is a minority within its own coalition. It would be led by a man who, however massively he may have been rejected by the public at large, has even less support within his own party; who was in the process of being given the bum’s rush, but who will now pause, on his way out the door, to govern the country — for six months. The cabinet he convenes will be absent two of its most prominent members, either de jure or de facto, as they tour the country campaigning to succeed him.

It will, however, contain six New Democrats, whose job will be to push as hard as they can for as much as they can in the short time the coalition is likely to last. It will be similarly beholden to the Bloc for its survival, serving at their pleasure, vulnerable to a Bloc decision to withdraw its support every single day of the week.

And he will be powerless to resist either of them. He will have no legitimacy, no authority, no base of support. His party could not possibly endure another election, even with public funds; theirs could. His sole job will be to pay them ransom, in regular installments, until the whole thing collapses of its own weight — probably in a matter of weeks. It isn’t just that the coalition is made up of parties with wholly incompatible agendas. At some point, somebody will miscalculate, push too hard, overplay their hand. Or, most likely, either the NDP or the Bloc — possibly both — will decide, once they have milked the Liberals dry, that it would be better to provoke an election in the spring, while Dion is still leader, than wait until May, and the arrival of another, presumably more popular Liberal leader. (Oh, but it could not happen, Dion replies: he has a piece of paper. Please. Whipping up “betrayals,” is the Bloc’s life’s work. They do that sort of thing in their sleep: “This is not what we signed onto. The Liberals have not lived up to their end of the bargain. etc. etc.” The 18 month “commitment” is meaningless. It’s an agreement to support the government until they don’t.)

I know a good many Liberals who are utterly aghast at where this is taking their party. Simply put, Dion is driving them off a cliff. If Harper overplayed his hand at the start of this fiasco, Dion has returned the favour. That picture of Dion, Duceppe and Layton together on the podium will be featured in every Tory attack ad from here to kingdom come. It will burn its way into the public mind. At one stroke, Dion has legitimized the NDP as a party of government, marginalized his own party as a party of the left, and delivered the government of Canada into the trembling hands of the Bloc. To all intents and purposes, this will be an NDP-Bloc government. The Liberals are simply the front, propped up in the shop window to give the thing respectability.

That, at any rate, will be the perception. And it is one that can only lead to the ruin of the Liberal party: when, not if, the coalition collapses, it will be the Liberals who will be consumed in the fires that will then rage. So the question becomes: When will the grown-ups in the party take charge? Already we are seeing some cracks in the Liberals’ resolve. Quietly, through surrogates, Michael Ignatieff has let his discomfort with the arrangement be known. A couple of the Liberal “wise men” who supposedly were to guide the coalition’s economic policies have publicly disowned the idea.

But if the party is to be preserved from the abyss towards which it is hurtling, somebody is going to have to grab the wheel. It’s not enough to hope that the Governor General will dissolve Parliament before then, or that Harper will prorogue Parliament. The first is unlikely, and the second only postpones the inevitable. Somebody needs to speak out, now.

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