The DNA of victory is embedded deep in the bone and sinew of the Liberal Party of Canada.
This is not good news if you happen to be a true believer of either the left or the right.
Not so many weeks ago, Prime Minister Stephen Harper appeared to be prepared to do or say anything to stave off a desperate coalition of convenience in Parliament between the then-faltering Liberals and the New Democratic Party, aided and abetted from the sidelines by the Bloc Quebecois.
But that was the result of a confluence of unexpected events. First, the Liberals were led by the hapless Stephane Dion, a man who just couldn’t connect with Canadians. Mr. Dion saw one last chance to make history before his party corrected the mistake it had made by choosing him. At that very moment, the prime minister blundered badly, proposing a budget with a political funding formula that posed an existential threat to the Bloc and New Democrats.
The result propelled the three opposition parties momentarily into each other’s arms. Mr. Harper’s Conservative government was only saved by the intervention of Liberal-appointed Governor General Michaëlle Jean.
At the time, Mr. Harper desperately assailed the coalition as an undemocratic devil’s brew of socialists and separatists, something his Conservative Party would never countenance. From the perspective of his personal political survival, that was probably the right thing to do. But with the benefit of 20-20 hindsight, we can now see that the long-term welfare of his party might have been better served if he’d let the sure-to-be-shaky coalition rule for a spell.
Without the coalition to kick around, the Liberal instinct for self-preservation swiftly reasserted itself. Mr. Dion was immediately sidelined, replaced by the much more sure-footed Michael Ignatieff. Talk of working with the NDP ceased forthwith.
As soon as Mr. Ignatieff took charge, he got to work rebuilding the broad coalition of moderate right and left that has been a hallmark of Liberal success for generations – a coalition that does not include NDP leader Jack Layton or Bloc Leader Gilles Duceppe.
Mr. Ignatieff clearly recognized that if the Liberals could retake the centre, they could retake the country. He was soon stitching together a tent big enough to hold the Canadian centre more comfortably than either the Conservative or New Democratic parties, both of which are much more closely tied to the ideologies of right and left.
The latest polls indicate his strategy is working. Liberals are now outpolling Mr. Harper’s Conservatives nation-wide. The margin was 36 to 33 per cent in a recent survey. In other words, Mr. Ignatieff probably has enough support to become prime minister, if only he can figure out a way to make an election happen.
There, from Mr. Ignatieff’s perspective, lies the rub. With only 77 members in the 308-member House of Commons, all the positive polls in Canada won’t give him enough votes to bring down Mr. Harper’s government.
From Mr. Harper’s point of view, the situation is ironic in the extreme. Notwithstanding his rhetoric last winter, the only way he can now hang onto power is by climbing into bed with social democrats and separatists! Talk about sleeping with the enemy!
It’s hard to imagine a more gruesome threesome, but if Mr. Harper wants to live to fight another day, he’s going to have to cozy up to Mr. Layton and Mr. Duceppe, exactly what he assailed Mr. Dion for doing.
Come the election, it’s pretty easy to imagine what the Liberals under Mr. Ignatieff will make of that. But then, as the old saw goes, politics makes strange bedfellows.