This guy can play

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National Post, Friday, January 30, 2009

Everyone knew Michael Ignatieff was book smart. Recent events have demonstrated that he is also street smart.

In arranging his own coronation as Liberal leader, Ignatieff showed he knows how to stage a bloodless coup. In endorsing this week's budget with conditions the government immediately accepted, he showed he can play the parliamentary game of tactics. In demanding quarterly updates on the rollout of budget booty as his price of his support, Ignatieff looks like he's holding a knife to the government's throat.

Ignatieff also avoided an election nobody wanted, while appearing to put the national interest ahead of partisan gain. He can take another year to rebuild the Liberal party. He can sit on the sidelines and let Harper take sole ownership of the recession. As Ignatieff said Wednesday, "it's his budget."

He also has the government on a "a very short leash," and can yank Harper's chain in the spring or fall if the economy really goes in the tank.

But as government House leader Jay Hill acknowledged when he immediately accepted the Liberal budget amendment, Ignatieff's demand also suits the Conservative government's purpose. It will put pressure on the Liberal-friendly bureaucracy to push billions and billions of dollars out the door.

Ignatieff himself spoke to that point in leading off Question Period on Wednesday, putting Stephen Harper on notice that he would be following the money. As everyone in Ottawa knows, it's one thing to get money approved, and another to get it moving through the system. The toxic effects of the sponsorship scandal linger still.

In all his moves, Ignatieff elegantly waved goodbye to the opposition coalition, saying it had served its purpose in bringing "a reckless and improvident" Harper to his senses. But the coalition was doomed from the moment the Three Stooges -- the guy who had just been dumped by his own party, together with the socialist guy and the separatist guy -- posed for photo-op on Dec. 1. The voters got it, and they didn't like it, having the strange idea that electing governments is their job. A coalition coup would have been constitutionally legal, but it would have been politically illegitimate in terms of the confidence of the country.

The coalition did serve one purpose for Ignatieff -- it hastened Dion's demise and his own accession to the leadership, saving the Liberals millions of dollars they don't have on a leadership race that would have left them divided. Ignatieff obviously understood that, and he clearly knew that it would have inflicted huge damage on the Liberal brand in Englishspeaking Canada. Instead, Ignatieff gets to move on, unencumbered by the dead weight of the coalition, and unburdened by the cares and costs of a leadership race.

Brian Mulroney, who knows something about rebuilding a party and winning elections, used to say: "the Liberals and Conservatives are both 30% parties and the election is won by getting to 40%." He said that party leaders had only three jobs: unite the party, fill the campaign coffers and win the election.

Ignatieff seems to understand his role as Liberal leader, as well as his job as opposition leader. The guy can play.

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