With Layton's departure, the ground shifts in Ottawa

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The Gazette, Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Jack Layton has brought the New Democratic Party a long way, from fourth place in the House of Commons to official opposition.

But it's now far from certain that he'll be able to lead the party on the final march to, as he put it on Monday, "replace the Conservative government, a few short years from now."

His announcement that he was stepping aside temporarily for further cancer treatments stunned Ottawa and the entire country.

"I will beat this new cancer," he declared in Toronto, "and I will be back in the House of Commons to defend the values and priorities of Canadian families."

Let's hope so. Candles are being lit, and prayers said, on his behalf.

"If I have tried to bring anything to federal politics," he continued, "it is that hope and optimism are at their heart."

His voice was thin and his appearance shockingly gaunt, the result, said one close associate, of heavy chemotherapy treatments that have already begun. Hopefully, in that sense, the worst might already be behind him.

But even if he makes a speedy and full recovery, it is difficult to imagine that he will be well enough to lead the NDP in the House when it returns on Sept. 19.

Meantime, it did not pass unnoticed that Layton has recommended Nycole Turmel from his Quebec caucus, rather than Tom Mulcair, as interim leader of the NDP. The caucus is to vote on Layton's choice in Ottawa on Wednesday, but a leadership skirmish under these circumstances is unimaginable. No one who valued a reputation for decency would even consider it.

Nevertheless, the political calculations of Ottawa have just shifted.

The possibility that Layton will need more time than six weeks to recover is obvious. The possibility that his illness could ultimately force him to step down cannot be excluded.

Meantime, the question is how the NDP caucus will hold itself together, when it is Layton who has brought them together.

Of the 103 members of that caucus, 59 are from Quebec, and 58 of those are freshman members of the Commons.

At their first caucus following the election, Layton quoted his father's former boss, Brian Mulroney, that "my week begins and ends on Wednesday" (when the weekly caucus meeting is held). And Layton knew very well, as someone close to him put it, that "90 per cent of his problems are caucus management."

The rest was managing a party that is historically averse to success. At the party's Vancouver convention in May, Layton decided that discretion was the better part of valour in sending a resolution to the effect that the NDP is no longer a socialist party back to a committee for further study.

In June, Layton had little choice, as the leader of a party co-founded by the trade unions, to defend the collective-bargaining rights of the Canadian Union of Postal Workers, the most unpopular union in the country. The NDP's 58-hour filibuster in the House against back-towork legislation left Layton exposed to the accusation that the party is beholden to special interests.

But Layton obviously felt he was both defending a hallowed principle and holding the government to account. And in that sense he was just doing his job as Opposition leader. But who, in his absence, will do that? Turmel is herself a rookie MP, though she has broader experience as the first woman to lead the Public Service Alliance of Canada.

Layton's absence on health leave, should it become prolonged, could also provide an opportunity for interim Liberal leader Bob Rae to step up. Politics abhors a vacuum, and the media must continuously feed the beast.

But as Layton steps aside temporarily, it is not too early to consider what he has already accomplished. He inherited a party in 2003 that was badly marginalized and barely hanging on to recognized-party status in the House. In each of the last four elections, he gradually increased the NDP's share of the vote and its seat count.

What he achieved in 2011, especially in Quebec, was nothing short of historic. And make no mistake: though Quebecers were comfortable with many of the NDP's positions on the left, they were voting for the leader. It was Layton's narrative as le bon Jack, the smiling candidate, and his gallant campaign, that made the NDP the place to go as Quebecers were leaving the Bloc.

As the rising tide lifted all those NDP boats, it virtually swept the separatists out of Ottawa and inflicted serious collateral damage on the Parti Québécois. In time, this may be seen as Layton's enduring contribution to the country.

But he's planning for one more kick at the election can. Get well soon, Jack.

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