The actors are ready, the Kabuki is about to begin

Ignatieff will play the front-runner. He reassures. He denies he is the front-runner.

The actors are ready, the Kabuki is about to begin

Autumn, and an old Liberal’s heart turns to thoughts of infighting. The Liberal Party of Canada’s Ontario wing invited candidates for the party’s leadership to a weekend board meeting in Toronto. There are three such fellows: Michael Ignatieff, Bob Rae, Dominic LeBlanc. They agreed to meet the party brass. Then Rae realized there would be no reporters at the event. He decided he couldn’t attend. “It sends an awful signal to have a debate that is closed to media,” he said in a news release.

Ignatieff’s people said rules are rules. This was always going to be a private meeting, they said. Changing the rules at the last minute would send an awful signal.

LeBlanc said he agreed with Rae: closed meeting? Awful signal. But he couldn’t boycott the meeting. What an awful signal that would send! Mostly, though, LeBlanc could only mourn the Rae-Ignatieff feud. You know what a Rae-Ignatieff feud is? It’s a signal is what it is. What kind of signal? Awful.

Thus the three candidates for the leadership of the Party Formerly Known As Naturally Governing settle into their parts in a theatre as ancient and rigidly defined as kabuki. Each has a role assigned by circumstance. Because none can change circumstance, each will play his role to the hilt.

Ignatieff plays the front-runner. He reassures. He denies he is the front-runner. He is accompanied by mighty organizers who confer with him urgently and, in various other ways, conjure impressions of inevitability.

The front-runner will win if there are no surprises. So he hates surprises. He will not say a cross word about anyone, but he cannot help mistrusting the other candidates because they bring surprise. This is the conflict that drives his character: he loves all, but he must not permit them to act. So, loving all, he will crush them.

Bob Rae is the challenger. His central characteristic is that he does not understand why he has to be the challenger. What the hell? He thought he had this thing. In 2006 he surrounded himself with the shiniest veterans of previous regimes. He spoke without scripts. In debates he rose from his chair while everyone else stayed sitting. He’s his own guy. He can do this. It was clear to him. He waited for it to become clear to everyone.

When Stéphane Dion won nobody was in a worse mood than Rae. Hadn’t you people been listening? Finally he decided he would just have to wait longer for his competence to triumph.

Now the moment arrives. The challenger awakes, and is amazed to discover that not everyone has been waiting. Ignatieff was gathering support while Rae gathered strength, and support is better. The challenger will lose if there is no surprise. So he must create surprises.

That’s why he decided the private meeting over the weekend had to be a public debate. It’s why he showed up outside the meeting, not to fold his tent and debate anyway, but to explain to reporters why he couldn’t take part in such a sham. It’s why he has proposed 13 public debates before Liberals choose delegates to the conventions. The challenger is prepared to talk forever if, in so doing, he can goad the front-runner into opening his own mouth. Perhaps a surprise will fall out. At this point that is the challenger’s best hope.

Dominic LeBlanc is the spoiler. He can win only on a complicated bank shot. He needs the front-runner to lose so spectacularly he takes the challenger with him. The good news is that it actually worked last time, for Stéphane Dion. The bad news has the good news outnumbered. First, after it worked for Dion, everything else stopped working. Second, Dion had candidates behind him who could rally to him. LeBlanc has nobody to rally to him except himself. Because he really needs Ignatieff and Rae to screw up big time, he will be saddened to discover that everything they do is evidence of their folly. He will often be heard clucking mournfully.

There is a fourth player, stationed just offstage. The three contestants mention him often and cast worried glances in his direction. He is Stephen Harper. Does he have a favourite? Each new clue contradicts the last. Perhaps a centre-right figure like Ignatieff could mow the electoral lawn under the Harper Conservatives. Maybe an old New Democrat like Rae could end vote-splitting on the left. Maybe young LeBlanc could make Harper look like yesterday’s man. Or perhaps the incumbent could crush them all.

Like any menace, Harper becomes more terrible in his opponents’ imagination with every passing month. Once they called him their best guarantee of success. Now he has become the first national Conservative leader since Sir John A. Macdonald to defeat two different Liberal opponents. Can nobody stop him?

These are the characters and the shape of the stage. The play will last until delegates are selected in March for the May convention. Ignatieff must be gentle and all-embracing so he can grow toward a majority of delegates. LeBlanc must be gentle and all-embracing in case Ignatieff’s shtick doesn’t work. Rae needs to goad Ignatieff. He will be hounded at every turn by the front-runner’s supporters, who love when their man talks and are badly upset when anyone talks back.

Probably Ignatieff will win. Probably this is the last time the Liberals will surrender to the increasingly dubious charms of a delegated convention. Will Harper crush a third Liberal? I’m sure I couldn’t begin to guess.