The battle over the future of the long-gun registry is narrowing as a clash of rural and urban values could very well bring about a tie vote on the floor of the House of Commons.
The outcome is now too close to call after a fourth New Democratic MP announced Monday he is switching his vote as the Conservatives unleash a last-minute flurry of radio and billboard ads targeted at rural Liberals and New Democrats.
When Parliament returns Monday after a nearly three-month summer break, the immediate focus will turn to a late Wednesday afternoon vote on the registry. Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff insists all of his MPs will be in their seats to vote in favour of continuing the registry and all of Prime Minister Stephen Harper's Conservatives will vote against.
Bloc Québécois MP Jean-Yves Roy confirmed Monday that he will delay his retirement until after the registry vote, meaning the Bloc will bring 48 votes to the House in support of the registry.
That leaves all eyes on the NDP, which is divided largely along urban and rural lines on this issue. But the tightening numbers created by Monday's developments raise the possibility that it could very well be a Liberal MP who casts the deciding vote - out of step with his 75 Liberal colleagues.
It will likely take one or two more New Democrats to switch away from supporting the Conservative bill in order for the registry to survive.
Various vote projections circulating on Parliament Hill include predictions of a one- or two-vote victory by the Conservatives or a tie.
If it's a tie vote, House of Commons Speaker Peter Milliken - a Kingston-area Liberal MP - is expected to vote with the Conservatives, not the Liberals, because of a precedent that Speakers vote to continue a debate.
The legislation, introduced by Manitoba Conservative Candice Hoeppner, passed at second reading and was sent to a committee, which held hearings on the registry. The opposition majority on the committee approved a report to the House that recommends the bill not go any further "because the committee has heard sufficient testimony that the bill will dismantle a tool that promotes and enhances public security and the safety of Canadian police officers."
The vote Wednesday will be on whether MPs support or oppose the report's recommendations. If the no side wins, the bill continues through the House and eventually to the Senate. If the vote is yes, the legislation is dead.
The NDP caucus is meeting in Regina this week to plan strategy for the fall session. The closed-door meeting included a morning talk from each MP about what they were hearing on the doorsteps. Shortly after, Welland, Ont., MP Malcolm Allen emerged to confirm that he would be switching his position and voting to defeat the Conservative private member's bill that will kill the registry.
It is a key moment for the NDP and its leader, Jack Layton, whose 36-MP caucus includes downtown urban ridings in Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver but also large rural ridings in Northern Ontario and Manitoba where the registry is highly unpopular.
The NDP is in a no-win situation on the registry debate, said pollster Nik Nanos, because of "a classic wedge issue" situation.
"They're bleeding to the Liberals in urban Canada and they're bleeding to the Conservatives in rural Canada, so it's a no-win issue for the NDP," he said.
Mr. Layton moved to counter that analysis Monday in a speech that attempts to turn his divided caucus into a positive message that his party is broad-based and rejects the "wedge" politics of the Liberals and Conservatives on the registry issue.
Mr. Allen, whose Southern Ontario riding is an urban and rural mix, said he made up his mind by listening to phone calls and face to face feedback in the riding over the past three weeks. He admits the feedback was close, but tilted toward continuing the registry.
"It's ironic that [the Conservatives]should say 'listen to your constituents,' " he said. "I have."
With a report from Jane Taber