Dion and his Liberals are in deep trouble in Quebec

Polls indicate they could be reduced to a rump on the island of Montreal

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The Gazette, Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Jean Lapierre was saying that he never thought he'd see the federal Liberals in worse shape in Quebec than they were at the depth of the sponsorship scandal. Until now, and the party's crisis of confidence in its current leader, Stéphane Dion. The present context, Lapierre says, is the worst he's ever seen in more than 30 years in the game.

Lapierre would know. He lived the consequences of the sponsorship scandal as Paul Martin's Quebec lieutenant, and saw the tide go out in two elections, 2004 and 2006, that reduced the Liberals to 21 and then 13 seats in Quebec, as a result of which they were first relegated to minority status and then to opposition.

Out of politics now, back in the media as a popular television and radio commentator, Lapierre is the most wired political observer in the province. His BlackBerry is constantly glowing with text messages and phone calls. He works the room hard, but the room also works him. He has the buzz, literally.

What he's seeing now, empirically and anecdotally, is a leader in a desperate situation.

Last weekend's authoritative CROP poll for La Presse couldn't have come at a worse time for Dion, following a week of prominent Liberals openly sniping at his leadership. The CROP numbers validated the growing insurgency in the ranks.

And those numbers couldn't have been worse for Dion (they weren't great for Gilles Duceppe, either, but then he isn't facing an incipient revolt).

Reading the top line, the Bloc Québécois is at 30 per cent, the Conservatives at 29 per cent, the Liberals at 20 per cent, and the NDP at 15 per cent.

But when you drill down inside those numbers, into regional and linguistic breakouts, they are devastating for Dion and the Liberals.

Among francophones, 85 per cent of voters, the Bloc leads at 35 per cent, followed by the Conservatives at 30 per cent, with the Liberals and NDP tied at 15 per cent. This means the Conservatives are actually ahead in a competitive two-way race in the 50 seats outside Montreal. The Liberals are completely out of the game. With numbers like this, they wouldn't win even one. It doesn't matter how good the local candidate is, or whether he has a ground game. You can't win anywhere outside Montreal with 15 per cent of the francophone vote province-wide.

Within that demographic, there's the important 418 region of Quebec City and eastern Quebec. This is where the Conservatives established their beachhead in 2006. And the Conservatives are poised to sweep the entire region. CROP has the Conservatives at 41 per cent, the Bloc at 25 per cent, the NDP at 17 per cent and the Liberals at 14 per cent.

Dion is in fourth place - fourth place - in his hometown of Quebec City, where he grew up and went to university. There's lots of reasons for this, starting with the fact that Quebecers don't like him, not to mention the damage to the Liberal brand inflicted by events of the last quarter century - from the unilateral patriation of the constitution in one century to the sponsorship scandal in the next.

Which reduces the Liberals to being the MIP - the Montreal Island Party. And even here in River City, CROP's numbers aren't that great for Dion. The Liberals are at 32 per cent, the Bloc at 25 per cent, while the Conservatives are 21 per cent, starting to come on to the island of Montreal.

This means the Liberals would essentially be reduced to their irreducible minimum, the western half of Montreal. And there are two West Island seats, Lac St-Louis and Pierrefonds-Dollard, where the Conservatives would be competitive if they could recruit star candidates. These are actually swing seats that would go to the Conservatives in a trend, as they did in the Mulroney elections of 1984 and 1988. (Bob Layton, Jack's father, and Gerry Weiner won them for the Tories then.)

These numbers speak volumes on their own. Anecdotally, the situation for the Liberals is even worse. Members of the executive who sat in with Dion at last week's meeting came away shaking their heads about a leader deeply in denial and completely disconnected from reality. He was reduced to saying he was the leader and was entitled to discipline.

To show just how tough he was, he demoted Denis Coderre from defence critic to heritage spokesperson in a minor shuffle of his shadow cabinet Monday.

This was an incredibly stupid move. Coderre is the party's best organizer in Quebec and one of its most prominent MPs. Publicly, he said nothing. Privately, he is seething with anger that this is how Dion repaid his declarations that Liberals are loyal to the leader and don't wash their dirty laundry in public. Dion has now given him a sword, and a reason to make Dion's life even more miserable.

This situation is not sustainable, and it is not survivable.

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