Harper licking his lips at idea of facing a 'socialist coalition'

But the talks of a Liberal-NDP partnership will probably fall flat

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The Gazette, Sunday, June 6, 2010

In London at a press conference with David Cameron, leader of Britain's new coalition government, Stephen Harper was ready for the question of whether Canada could follow the British example in a minority House.

"Losers don't get to form coalitions," he declared in the garden at 10 Downing St. "Winners are the ones who form government, and obviously David was able to form an innovative arrangement."

He added: "In the end, the coalition in Britain - I think it's important to point out - was formed by the party that won the election."

Then, referring to the Three Stooges coalition that resulted in the Canadian parliamentary crisis of 2008, Harper went on: "This coalition in Britain doesn't include a party dedicated to the breakup of the country. And these were the two problems in Canada. The proposition by my opposition was to form a coalition for the purpose of excluding the party that won the election, and for the purpose of including the party dedicated to the breakup of the country."

And then in French, he drew a constitutional line from the new Westminster experience: "The party that has lost the election, the opposition that has lost the election, it's unacceptable for such a party to try to form such a government, a government of losers."

And that, he concluded, was the difference between them.

He's just getting warmed up. Wait until he gets out on the campaign trail against the putative Liberal-NDP coalition. Remember the separatist coalition? Welcome to the socialist coalition.

What would lend credibility to such a line would be the clear memory of the Three Stooges, and their famous signature ceremony.

For Harper, this is a gift outright. For the Liberals, it's poison. And for Michael Ignatieff, the talk of a coalition or merger on the left is a devastating commentary on the state of his leadership of the Liberal Party. Apparently he is no more able to stop it than Barack Obama is able to contain the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

This isn't just idle talk by disgruntled backbenchers, or plotting by party activists desperate for a Liberal restoration. It's driven by some of the most senior figures in the party, starting with Jean Chrétien, a three-term prime minister and the most successful Liberal alive.

"If it's doable, let's do it," he told the CBC. Roy Romanow, former NDP premier of Saskatchewan, and Chrétien's old winger from the constitutional wars of 1980-82, told CBC the two parties should be at least "bold" enough to look at it. The Chrétien wing of the party largely backed Bob Rae at the 2006 leadership, and Rae recently wrote an article commemorating the 25th anniversary of the Liberal-NDP pact that brought David Peterson to power in Ontario. (Chrétien's former communications director, Peter Donolo, is now Iggy's chief of staff, and his response is probably, "thanks a lot, boss." As experienced as he is, Donolo has been unable to kill the story, because his own rank and file keep feeding it.

Donolo, who also used to be in the polling business, would also have been annoyed by an Angus Reid poll that showed a Liberal-NDP coalition losing to Harper's Conservatives by six points under Iggy's leadership, but winning by six points under Jack Layton. In the polling trade, this is called a beauty contest. But this is so hypothetical as to be laughable. No such coalition exists, and no conversations have taken place.

But it is a telling commentary on the state of Ignatieff's leadership. What people are actually saying is that Layton is a more effective opposition leader, and a better communicator, than Iggy. And they're not wrong about that. After a year and a half in the role, he still hasn't conveyed a compelling narrative, or developed a winning message.

But he's been confirmed as Liberal leader by a full convention, and he's entitled to lead the party into an election. Which isn't to say there is happiness in the ranks. There isn't.

But from there to jump-starting coalition talk with the NDP is indicative of panic in the Liberal tent. They see Liberal poll numbers under Iggy stuck in the mid-20s, with the leader firing blanks in the House and igniting no crowds across the country.

A Liberal-NDP coalition is not as obvious a fit as some proponents think. The two brands are very different. The Liberals are a great national trademark, the equivalent of McDonald's in the fast food space, while the Conservatives are Burger King and the NDP like Harvey's.

What the Liberals need to do is renovate their brand with new offerings on the policy menu. They can't get by any more with burgers and fries, when customers want salads and bottled water.

Imagine the colours of a Liberal-NDP coalition. Red and orange. It ain't happening.

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