The Night of 1,000 Delusions

Layton imagined Harper would be psyched to meet with him to discuss NDP priorities. It was adorable.

The most surreal moment of election night 2011 took form as it became apparent to one and all that Jack Layton, leader of the Opposition, had lost his mind.

It’s well and good to celebrate a historic surge in one’s popular support. A wide smile and a jubilant bit of cane-waving are undoubtedly in order. But a few lines into Layton’s speech, a nation gaped as it grew clear the NDP leader had mistaken his moral victory for, you know, an actual victory. He seemed to labour under the impression that he would hold sway in the next Parliament. Indeed, Layton went so far as to imagine that Stephen Harper would be psyched to meet with him to discuss NDP priorities.

It was kind of adorable, like a kitten pawing at a vacuum. One envisioned Layton’s aides whispering between themselves:

—Should we tell him?

—Nah, it’s cute. We’ll put it on YouTube and call it “I Can Haz Influence?”

All campaign long, Layton had ended his speeches by vowing theatrically that, as prime minister, he. Would not. Stop. Untiltheworkisdone. He stuck to this rhetoric on election night. But the Opposition leader doesn’t get to do the work. At best, he gets first dibs on criticizing the work. With more than a hundred seats in a Conservative majority, Jack Layton has never been so undeniably relevant—and so utterly inconsequential.

Layton’s wild imaginings were merely the evening’s most flamboyant. The Night of 1,000 Delusions had gained momentum only a few minutes earlier, when Elizabeth May of the Green party ventured a curious interpretation of her own election to Parliament. “Today we proved that Canadians want change in politics,” she told supporters.

Is that what we proved? Because when the governing party wins a third straight election, and does so with a strengthened mandate, some of us are tempted to resort to the familiar Latin of status quo. Although to be fair to May, her party did attract 40 per cent fewer votes nationally this time—so that was change of a sort.

More oddly, given her moment in the spotlight, May behaved in the manner of an actress being handed a shiny prize—she recited a list of thank yous and cracked some inside jokes, instead of seizing the moment to make her case and build her following. One sensed an end, not a beginning.

The night before our election, President Barack Obama had made his dramatic announcement from the White House. Come May 2, therefore, Osama bin Laden was, depending on one’s beliefs, either burning in hell or being confronted by 72 virgins. Either way, he had a long night ahead—though perhaps not as long as that which awaited Michael Ignatieff. Casting their votes, traditional Liberal supporters heeded his call to “rise up,” but only so they’d be on their feet to wander over to the Conservatives or NDP.

The Liberal leader began the campaign as a target. He ended it as an afterthought. Having attracted fewer than one in five votes nationally to the Liberal side, and having lost his own seat, Ignatieff somehow marshalled the words required to issue an empty vow to carry on as leader. The small crowd did him the favour of pretending that made a lick of sense. He resigned the next morning.

Who would be the smart choice to replace Ignatieff? Justin Trudeau, according to some. Dominic LeBlanc, according to others. Bob Rae, according to Bob Rae. For the Liberal party, potential leadership candidates are plentiful—it’s followers who are in short supply.

As Ignatieff showed, the stress of the campaign can sap the faculties. Not even Harper was immune. The Conservative leader was so boggled on election night that he gave a speech in which he portrayed himself as gracious and inclusive. One assumes he later rallied his senses.

A Conservative majority gives Harper licence to stop acting like a little bully and start acting like a big bully. But perhaps he will make more of his opportunity. Perhaps freed of the need to be eternally combative, paranoid and, yes, dickish, he will indeed “govern for all Canadians.”

He said he would. And he said he’d govern with hope. And maybe he even meant it as he said it. On this Night of 1,000 Delusions, it helped to imagine that at least one thing we saw and heard was real.

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