State of play

The band — covers from the 60s, 70s, 80s and whatever — was really quite good in front of the big Bill Reid sculpture at the Museum of Civilization in Gatineau as the usual Parliament Hill suspects convened for the annual Press Gallery Dinner last night. The speeches — none from any political leader; the prime minister’s boycott of the event has proved contagious, and the shorter event is a blessing — were funny and brief. The attempts at comedy were really bad. The real fun came before dinner, between courses and long after, as journalists, politicians, and former journalists and politicians (i.e. lobbyists) gossipped about the week’s news. Here’s an attempt to tease consensus and narrative out of the jumble:

  • Nobody serious pretends to know how this will end. The task facing the opposition is complex and daunting. Opposition politicians acknowledge that, simply by delaying the vote by a week, Stephen Harper has given them two kinds of opportunity: a chance to get their act together, and a chance for their ramshackle coalition to fall apart. A minority of the Liberals I spoke to expect this attempt to fail.
  • Jean Chrétien is in Florida but he took his cell phone and the numbers of key Liberals and New Democrats. He is in this at Ed Broadbent’s request, because the NDP sees no coherent Liberal leadership capable of delivering the whole party into any deal. Many Liberals deny Chrétien has an active role. But they take his calls.
  • Some Liberals say the Bloc will not accept Michael Ignatieff as PM and that the Bloc insists on Dion, who will do less damage to their long-term chances. Some Liberals say the NDP will not accept Bob Rae as PM. I spoke to an NDP negotiator who said the party does not care who serves as PM. “The Liberal leader will be PM. The Liberals get to decide who their leader is.” The Bloc does not expect cabinet seats. I’ve heard one report that the Bloc is insisting on a French-only requirement for public-service employees in Quebec. This was news to a Bloquiste I quizzed. The NDP does expect cabinet seats; a deal like the 1985 accord in Ontario, which sealed NDP cooperation for a Liberal-only cabinet, is unacceptable to the NDP, who see this as a chance to groom a young generation of New Democrats who are used to the compromises and disciplines of actually governing.
  • I spoke to one of Stephen Harper’s closest collaborators and to several Conservatives more distant from the boss. They were unanimous in acknowledging that, one way or another, the fall economic and fiscal update constituted a misstep of some kind. Where they differ is on what, precisely, the mistake was, and how to recover now.
  • Some Conservatives are very angry with Harper. He called an early election seeking a calmer Parliament in which he could govern without serious interference for a while. Now, at a bare minimum, he’s lost that calm. The bitter, acrimonious autumn he wanted to avoid is here in spades, and according to some in his own party, he’s to blame.
  • He is getting conflicting advice on what to do next. His options, broadly, are Fight or Contrite. Fight is the path he chose on Friday: put every obstacle in the way of the rival coalition, decry its legitimacy, appeal to Canadians. Even prorogue Parliament (Nobody knew whether to believe that theory; one Liberal called it “pulling the fire alarm before your final exam”). Even more. The Conservatives have booked an airplane and campaign buses in the event of an election call. Not because they expect one but because they want to be ready for anything.
  • Contrite looks a little like John Baird cancelling the party-financing stuff on Saturday, but would now have to go much further than that. (Incidentally, I talked to a former cabinet minister and a former senior staffer to a finance minister, from different parties. Both were astonished that a transport minister would be selected to disown part of a finance minister’s fiscal update two days after it was delivered. They saw this as a serious blow to Jim Flaherty’s legitimacy as a minister.) Harper is being advised, not by everyone around him but by some, to take back all of his fall update — pay equity, union-busting, the whole nine yards — fire somebody significant (Flaherty? Guy Giorno?), and promise to better, quickly.
  • But most of his closest advisors would much rather Fight than Contrite.

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