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Liberal MPs have voted unanimously to support the mission in Afghanistan. And a good thing too, given the results of the by-election in Vaughan.

There is dissent within the Liberal ranks over Leader Michael Ignatieff's decision to support the Harper government as it transforms the Afghanistan deployment from combat to training.

But after losing a once safe seat in the exurban Toronto riding of Vaughan on Monday, Liberal MPs clearly realized it was vital to present a united front and support the leader. No doubt to Mr. Ignatieff's relief, the caucus dutifully showed up on Tuesday to vote against the Bloc Québécois motion condemning the government for not first obtaining the consent of Parliament.

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All three national parties spent Tuesday spinning the results of Monday's by-elections in Ontario and Manitoba. Some parties had more need to spin than others.

The Liberals trumpeted the dismal performance of the NDP, which lost its former stronghold of Winnipeg North to a Grit and saw its share of the vote in Vaughan fall to a shocking 1.7 per cent of votes cast. (In the 2008 election, the party secured 9.6 per cent support.)

This showed that Canadians are abandoning "boutique parties," in one Liberal strategist's words, and embracing their party as the only credible alternative to Stephen Harper's Conservatives.

"We think that as you reflect on those results, you think ... there are two choices at the next election. There is a Liberal choice and there's a Conservative choice," Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff told reporters.

But the Liberals' real challenge was to explain away their loss of Vaughan, a long-time Liberal holding, to Conservative candidate Julian Fantino, the former Toronto and Ontario Provincial Police chief. The result raises questions about how many other Liberal seats in Greater Toronto may be vulnerable.

"They were bragging that they were going to crush us in Vaughan with their star candidate," Liberal MP Mark Holland told reporters. "Conservatives should be worried" that they took the riding by only a thousand votes, he said.

So in a by-election - which voters typically use to punish the government - the Liberals lose a riding they have held by large margins for 22 years in a region where they absolutely must make gains to have any hope of forming a government, but it's the Conservatives who should be worried. Okay.

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The Conservatives, having comfortably held one seat in the by-elections and taken a second from the Liberals, were doing everything they could to maximize the damage to Mr. Ignatieff's credibility.

"This is a time of reckoning for Mr. Ignatieff," Immigration Minister Jason Kenney crowed on Tuesday in a by-election post-mortem with reporters.

"Michael Ignatieff suffered a terrible loss last night and it may in part be because his party is concerned about everything except the economy."

As for the NDP, strategists pointed to the fact that the Liberal candidate in Winnipeg North was a popular former member of the provincial legislature, while the NDP choice was a rookie politician.

Ian Capstick, a former aide to NDP Leader Jack Layton and now a political consultant, thinks that's exactly the NDP's problem. The party, he said, has to do a much better job of recruiting candidates.

"If anybody is worried today, it's the Manitoba New Democrats," he said in an interview. "It was not a great night for them."

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Mr. Layton said it would be a mistake to read too much into a few by-election defeats.

"I don't think you can find a trend line in these results," he told reporters. "We're just going to keep at it."

But three truths can't be ignored: The Conservatives stole a seat in the Liberal heartland of Greater Toronto. The Liberals, in partial compensation, stole a once-safe seat from the NDP in Winnipeg. The NDP lost one riding and embarrassed itself in another.

Spin all you want, but there it is.

With a report from Jane Taber

Editor's note The New Democrats won 9.6 per cent support in Vaughan in the 2008 election. An earlier version of this story transposed the digits.

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About the Author
Writer-at-large

John Ibbitson started at The Globe in 1999 and has been Queen's Park columnist and Ottawa political affairs correspondent.Most recently, he was a correspondent and columnist in Washington, where he wrote Open and Shut: Why America has Barack Obama and Canada has Stephen Harper. He returned to Ottawa as bureau chief in 2009. More

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