The Liberals can thank Harper for their good fortune

If not for the PM, the party would be in the middle of a costly leadership fight

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The Gazette, Sunday, April 5, 2009

At the annual Liberal leader's fundraiser in Toronto the other night, Michael Ignatieff was introduced by his friend and rival of a lifetime, Bob Rae.

At this point in the Liberal leadership race, Iggy and Bob should have been tearing one another to pieces, rather than holding a public meeting of their mutual admiration society. Not only would the Liberals have presented the image of a house divided, they would have been broke. In the usual course of events, the speaker would have been Stéphane Dion, in his last weeks as lame-duck leader, and hardly anyone would have paid to come.

Instead of a divided party in dire financial straits, the Liberals presented an impressive united front, as more than 1,000 people paid $500 a head to pack the big old ballroom of the Royal York, while hundreds more paid a premium for a cocktail with Iggy.

The Liberals have only one person to thank for their good fortune - Stephen Harper.

If Harper hadn't tried to put the Liberals out of business, by ending public subsidies to political parties in last fall's economic update, the Liberals might have done it to themselves.

Instead, Ignatieff leads a united party to Vancouver at month's end, to a convention that's been transformed into a coronation. And a party that would have been drained financially by the fundraising demands of several leadership camps is instead raising millions toward the next election. The Liberals are also going to Vancouver resurgent in the polls, particularly in Ontario and Quebec, the two keystone provinces of Liberal dynasties since Laurier's time.

Instead of having had Dion to kick around again for another six months, while Iggy and Bob pounded each other on the leadership trail, Harper faces a united party that is once again in the hands of political professionals.

Life for the Liberals under Dion was a continuous comedy of errors, culminating in December's Three Stooges coalition and the grainy televised video that finally resulted in Dion's sudden ouster.

The truly admirable thing about the palace revolt against Dion was that it was a bloodless coup, organized and staged by Ignatieff loyalists, without his fingerprints on the gun. In accepting his appointment, rather than his election, as Liberal leader, Ignatieff was positioned as simply answering his party's call to public service. In noting that Ignatieff was the overwhelming choice of both the caucus and the party's grandees, Rae acknowledged that "I can count."

Looking back on the seven-day parliamentary crisis, the question is why Harper risked so much when the Liberals were already broke and in disarray. Quite apart from rescuing the Liberals from the incompetent Dion, and sparing them a divisive leadership campaign, Harper's actions renewed suspicions in the country of a certain meanness of spirit, to say nothing of hidden agenda.

Then there's the economy, stupid. While events like the London G20 summit have played to Harper's strengths, (other than his getting lost in the washroom on the way to the class photo), the recession is taking an inevitable toll in Conservative voting intentions. The Liberals quite rightly regard every lost job as one less vote for the Tories, or one less for the NDP.

As he did in Montreal two weeks ago, Ignatieff told his Toronto audience that the Liberals are the party of the dynamic centre. He is on a mission to build a big tent party, bidding to take back votes back from the NDP and the Greens on the left, and the Bloc on the soft nationalist flank in Quebec.

The Liberals have always been a party of management, and the country's Toronto-based management class didn't recognize itself in the party of Dion, starting with his non-aggression pact with Green Party leader Elizabeth May, and culminating in the December coalition with Jack Layton, propped up by Gilles Duceppe. The December coalition was a perfectly constitutional play, since the only question is the confidence of the House, and the coup plotters had the numbers. But it was politically illegitimate in terms of the confidence of the country, and the Liberals' own base, and would have led to disastrous consequences for the party in English-speaking Canada.

So Harper's play last November saved the Liberals from a leadership campaign, and Dion's failed coup saved the party, in that he was immediately forced out.

A funny thing happened on the way to the convention. It was fixed. The only reason for going through with it is the coronation, the laying on of hands, that will give Ignatieff the legitimacy he needs to take to the voters.

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