Spoiling for a vote, or just spoiling?

With the Tories stumbling in the House, Dion might be tempted to pull the plug

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The Gazette, Monday, April 21, 2008

Stéphane Dion is essentially a leader without outriders. He didn't have many unconditional supporters to start with, or much of an entourage, even in his own office.

Among political leaders, this is highly unusual. Pierre Trudeau had a gang of loyalists. So did Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin, whose gang was known as "the Board." Brian Mulroney was a very tribal leader, who used to say, "you dance with the one that brung ya."

Nobody really brung Dion. He is an accidental leader who became his party's default position when the grassroots revolted against the party establishment's two candidates, Michael Ignatieff and Bob Rae, at the 2006 leadership convention. In a way, it served the establishment right for having two candidates rather than one, when it turned out to be not the turn of either.

So it was considered an important wall poster last week when two members of Dion's close circle, Paddy Tornsey and Eleni Bakopanos, left his staff. Both are former MPs who are running again in the next election. And their departure was being widely read last week as their getting off to a head start.

Tornsey was Dion's deputy principal secretary and Bakopanos was the caucus liaison, and both positions are important roles in any leader's office. Dion would normally be loath to let them go, especially considering his small close circle. How close? Tornsey and Bakopanos often sat in the leader's gallery during question period alongside his wife Janine Krieber, a frequent attendee and probably his closest adviser.

Dion took the unusual step of putting out a press release titled "a fond farewell to two staff members," on the opposition leader's letterhead, thanked them for their service, and said he looked forward to seeing them both back "as members of the Liberal caucus after the next election."

So, is Dion finally getting ready to break camp and force an election, with the immigration-reform bill as the trigger?

Well, the immigration bill could be a bit of an issue, in the sense of the Liberals standing up for their principles on family reunification and refugee determination, hot-button issues in places like Toronto, where multicultural communities are an important Liberal clientele.

The Conservatives, for their part, are quite comfortable planting their flag on the hill of making workforce skills the priority in immigration, where there's a six-year waiting list of at least 800,000 applicants, not to mention thousands of phony refugee claims.

Quite a few members of the Liberal caucus are getting tired of being blowhards on defeating the government, and then hiding behind the Commons curtains when it comes time to vote.

There is also a significant number of Liberal MPs, mainly from safe ridings in Ontario, who just want to get an election over with so they can get a new leader. The Bob and Iggy wings of the party are also leaning in that direction. One top Toronto political operative close to both of them says: "People close to Bob and Michael have for different reasons come to the conclusion that this situation is no longer sustainable."

Those are all good reasons for a leader, who appears increasingly isolated within his own caucus, to pull the pin on an election.

Plus, the Conservatives are on a very bad roll. Last week, they were cringing with embarrassment over Maxime Bernier's latest foreign-policy blooper on Afghanistan, followed by the RCMP and Elections Canada raid on Tory headquarters in Ottawa in a search for documents on disputed advertising expenses from the 2006 campaign.

The raid was carried out in the presence of the media, who were tipped off, as were the Liberals, who happened to be their with their own video crew. The Liberals have probably already cut a campaign attack ad on the episode.

Coming on top of the Tom Lukiwski tape, and Jean-Pierre Blackburn's musings on entrenching the Québécois-nation resolution in the constitution, the Conservatives are probably relieved that the House is out this week.

If the Liberals get a bounce in the polls out of the Tory travails, they could well feel emboldened when the House returns next week. And when the budget implementation bill is called to a vote in early May, it will once again be decision time for Dion, who in the words of one strategist, "has been clinging to strategic ambiguity."

A defeat of the government in the House in the first week of May would lead to an election on June 16, the last Monday before the summer holidays.

Over to you, Stéphane.

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