The Tory-versus-coalition flap defined Canadian politics this past year. Even though it came late in the year and despite the fact there was also an election, the constitutional crisis caused by the Tories' overreaching attempt to defund their opponents and the Liberal-NDPBloc attempt to overturn the results of an election less than two months after it was held will be the political event longest remembered from 2008.
And the more I reflect on it, the more I am convinced Jack Layton was the crisis's biggest loser.
If we assume the coalition is dead (and it 99.9 per cent is), then the party and leader who have fallen the farthest back as a result of the power play are the NDP and Layton.
New Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff is keeping the possibility of a coalition alive rhetorically because without the threat of the coalition toppling the Tories at the end of this month, the Liberals' bargaining position would be greatly weakened.
Ignatieff would have little chance of convincing the Tories to include his stimuli in the upcoming budget stimuli if he announced today that, no matter what, the Liberals will not pull down the government over the budget.
But it is not even in Ignatieff's interests over the next three to six months to keep the coalition alive.
For his predecessor, Stephane Dion, the coalition was the only hope he would ever become prime minister.
Yet, for Ignatieff, the coalition is the biggest impediment to him becoming prime minister and staying in the job.
Can you imagine a new, energetic Liberal leader being saddled with running a government in co-operation with the NDP? One-quarter of his ministers would be under the control of another leader and Ignatieff would have a great interest in keeping them in the dark about Liberal strategy and in keeping them from snatching the credit for popular moves.
In the end, the hodgepodge government would almost certainly fall apart far sooner than the 21/2 years its component parties agree to and it would also surely dissolve in petty bickering and finger-pointing, giving the Tories a running start in the election that would follow.
It's true Ignatieff has other big impediments in his path to 24 Sussex, such as his old New York Times columns championing an American empire and referring to "we" Americans.
And he is also going to have to live down his signature on the coalition agreement that in its first line talks about the coalition being in the best interests of "Canada and Quebec," as if the two were separate nations already.
But Ignatieff will be aided by the infinite malleability of the Liberal conscience. Anything a Liberal does can be forgotten by all other Liberals (and the vast majority of the parliamentary press gallery), if shoving it down the memory hole is in the best interest of the Liberal party.
For instance, in Saturday's Toronto Star, senior Liberal strategist Tom Axworthy wrote that Ignatieff's selection gives the Liberals their best chance in a generation of "democratic renewal of the party," even while admitting that Ignatieff's selection marked the first time since the 19th century that the Liberal rank-and-file played no direct part in choosing the party boss.
I'm really at a loss as to how to defend against the fact that the way that Ignatieff is using the coalition is basically giving the media a chance to revert to their old ways of bashing the NDP. Not that I would expect much else from them, but I digress.
Nonetheless, I think the Liberals will turn out to be winners if they back away from the coalition idea, as I suspect they already have. This crisis enabled them to dump an awful leader in Dion and replace him with someone who, no matter his political warts, is instantly a more attractive leader. And it has made the Tories more reluctant to yank the other parties' chains (especially the Liberals') in the Commons.
Stephen Harper and his Tories have slipped as a result of the crisis and the way they provoked it. If nothing else, their shenanigans indirectly led to the early resignation of Dion, who was so bad he had been the Tories' ace in the hole.
Moreover, Harper could, before, with just a glance, send the opposition parties (especially the Liberals) scurrying into a corner of the Commons cowering in fear.
Now they no longer fear him. And it will take a long time, if ever, before he has the full command of the House he enjoyed before the crisis.
Still, it was Layton who suffered most.
First, he had a chance to do in the Liberals and replace them as the default selection on the left had he gone along with the Tories' plan to end public funding to parties. Next to the Tories, the NDP has the best chance of replacing public handouts with private donations. Layton could have crippled the Liberals; instead, he tried to vault himself into cabinet by riding into power as the Liberals' shotgun.
With the revealing of the coalition, Layton was also exposed as a self-serving opportunist with no compunction about making a deal with separatists, even weeks before the Tories lit the match on the crisis. And with the coalition's demise, Layton is now even further from power than he was before.
The Tories and Harper were undeniably scathed, but Layton and the NDP were hurt the worst.
Lorne Gunter can be reached at:
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