The palace coup

Ignatieff is tough and he knows how to move the pieces around the leadership chess board

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The Gazette, Sunday, December 14, 2008

Being descended from Russian nobility, Michael Ignatieff evidently knows how to run a palace coup.

With lightning speed, Ignatieff deposed Stéphane Dion, and forced Dominic Leblanc and Bob Rae out of the succession for the Liberal crown. And Iggy's fingerprints aren't to be found anywhere on the gun.

And here he is, duly installed as the overwhelming choice of the Liberal caucus, national executive, and various elements of the party establishment to lead them against Stephen Harper's minority Conservative government in the House of Commons.

Think about it--only a week ago, Dion was still barricaded in the opposition leader's fourth floor office in the Centre Block. Today, Dion is out, and Iggy is in, having been officially confirmed as leader last Wednesday, after Dion was forced out, while Leblanc and Rae dropped out.

The party had no choice but to dump Dion after the failed parliamentary coup and the bungled delivery of his blurry videotaped address to the nation. In every coup, the first thing they do is take over the TV station. These clowns couldn't even find it. Instead, as in every failed coup, the leader was stood up against a wall and shot.

On reflection, the coup was doomed the moment the coalition leaders- Dion, Jack Layton and Gilles Duceppe - appeared together at a solemn signing ceremony. That's when the penny dropped that the opposition leaders were mounting a coup that, while perfectly constitutional in terms of the confidence of the House, was politically illegitimate in the eyes of voters. Hadn't there just been an election? Didn't they just get rid of Dion? Hadn't he just been dumped as Liberal leader? So how come he was back, flanked by the socialist and separatist leaders?

Dion's very public flameout in the House the next day was proof positive that he was unfit to be prime minister, even for a day. The tape was the final straw--my daughter has better videos on her cell phone, and she knows how to find the TV station.

It is the failed coup, and only the failed coup, that forced Dion out, and has saved the Liberals the time and expense of running a divisive six-month leadership race.

The Liberals can thank Stephen Harper for saving them all that trouble. It was the government's economic statement - killing public financing of political parties and banning strikes in the public service - that brought the coup plotters together in the first place. Why they thought they could engineer the defeat of the government, when Harper was perfectly within his constitutional right to ask the governor- general to prorogue the House instead, is a tribute to their delusional fantasies. It's hard to determine which side was more reckless--the government in provoking the crisis or the coalition for taking the country to the brink.

And Dion, who was forgotten but not gone, is now gone but not forgotten. He had a respectable run as a cabinet minister in the Chrétien and Martin governments, and as an accidental leader he had an extraordinary opportunity to grow into the role, which he never did. Even his defeat in October was a fairly honourable thing--at least he stood for something, the Green Shift. But the coalition coup was a naked power grab, and an ignominious end to Dion's career. Rather than spending one Christmas at 24 Sussex, as he briefly thought he might, he is packing his bags at Stornoway. He is lucky the Liberal Party doesn't throw him out on the sidewalk.

Harper, who could have had Dion to kick around again for another six months, will never again face such a witless or incoherent opponent in the House.

Ignatieff, as he has just proven, is not only smart, he's also tough. He's also just proven that he knows how to move the pieces around the leadership chess board.

Now Ignatieff has the option of pulling the trigger on the government on the Jan. 27 budget, or taking the high road and squeezing Harper for enough so that the Liberals can support it. In the first instance, there would be an election - forget about the coalition, it's dead, the Liberal Party wants it dead. In the second, Ignatieff can bide his time, bind the party's wounds, and build a campaign war chest for an election next fall, when the full effects of economic downturn will be felt.

Either option works for Iggy. But the second one would be the smarter move.

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