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How the Liberals decided to pull the plug

Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff leaves a news conference Friday in Vancouver.

ANDY CLARK/Andy Clark/ Reuters News Agency

After a political week that surged in a few days from the summer doldrums to fall election frenzy, the Liberals are set to launch a series of election-style television ads this weekend, introducing leader Michael Ignatieff to Canadians in what strategists are saying is the biggest pre-writ ad buy in the party's history.

A policy platform will be out soon. An election tour has been put together; buses are in place. (The Liberals are still looking for a plane.)

For all the speed of this transition, there was no sudden decision that prompted it.

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Mr. Ignatieff and his strategists set out last June to map a course toward a fall election, believing they could not sustain supporting the Harper minority Conservative government without damaging their brand.

"We as a party needed to disentangle from the Dion coalition," said a senior Liberal strategist, referring to the coalition former leader Stéphane Dion entered into with the NDP and Bloc Québécois last November, with disastrous results.

The plan was to give Stephen Harper one last chance to work with them over the summer, through a bipartisan committee that was struck to consider employment insurance reform.

But that deal also included an "opposition day" in early fall - later this month or in early October - in which they could, if they so chose, put forward a motion of no-confidence in the government. If the committee didn't work, the Liberals could pull the plug.

"I think Michael knew in June that he had one get-out-of-jail card and I think that most [Liberals]understood that there was only one way to handle the fall [take down the Tories,]rdquo; a senior Liberal strategist said.

Last Tuesday, the Liberal Leader followed the script he laid out in June, announcing to his caucus, who were meeting in Sudbury, Ont., for their annual summer retreat, that at their first opportunity they would move a motion of no-confidence.

"Mr. Harper, your time is up," he said in his speech to caucus as MPs and senators jumped to their feet, cheering and applauding.

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The strategy, ironically, was set with the help of Mr. Harper during his negotiations with Mr. Ignatieff: In return for supporting the Tory budget bill last June, the Prime Minister agreed to Mr. Ignatieff's request for a special Tory-Liberal working group to find ways of reforming the employment insurance system.

Liberal strategists say, however, that was only one part of the deal. More important was their success in prying from the Conservatives a commitment to give them a fall opposition day.

This would give Mr. Ignatieff his opportunity to try to defeat the government if the EI reforms did not go his way.

The government controls the dates of opposition days. The Liberals feared that they would be loaded up at the end of the sitting in December, making it virtually impossible for the opposition to defeat the government because it would mean forcing an election campaign over the holiday season. And with the Olympics in February, the next opportunity to take down the government would likely not happen until the budget in the spring - giving the Harper Tories possibly another seven months to govern.

By that time, too, the economy could be well on its way out of recession, something for which Canadians would most likely credit the government.

For all those reasons, a fall election seems the most advantageous for the Liberals.

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They realized, more recently, that EI reform was not an issue that captivated Canadians. It was a dud and they needed to distance themselves from it.

Still, insiders say, Mr. Ignatieff initially wanted to trust Mr. Harper, believing he was sincere that he wanted changes to the system.

"I think Michael genuinely believed that if Harper showed some interest in his employment insurance stuff … Michael's plans might have looked a lot different," a senior Liberal strategist said. "There is a Pollyanna quality to Michael that shouldn't be underestimated."

In any case, the committee studying the reforms to employment insurance fell apart. The Liberals have stopped meeting, arguing that the Tories sabotaged it.

But the Liberals have been in no hurry. For nine months since he took over the party leadership, Mr. Ignatieff has had to bide his time, waiting for the right conditions: money in the party coffers, robust membership, candidates in place, a platform and the narrative framed for an election campaign.

Even last June, when he had the chance to join with the NDP and the Bloc Québécois to vote down the Harper budget, Mr. Ignatieff resisted - despite pressure from senior caucus members and the senior statesman of the party, Jean Chrétien.

"It was a case of mind over matter," says chief whip Rodger Cuzner, a Nova Scotia MP and a close adviser. "… He knew that, had we run, we wouldn't have run our best campaign. … We are better organized now. Whether or not we are at 100 per cent, we are better ahead than we were in the spring."

In the second quarter of this year, Liberals raised $3.9-million, four times the amount raised last year at the same time when Mr. Dion was leader.

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About the Author
Ontario politics reporter

Jane Taber is a reporter at Queen’s Park. After spending three years reporting from the Atlantic, she has returned to Ontario and back to writing about her passion, politics. She spent 25 years covering Parliament Hill for the Ottawa Citizen, the National Post and the Globe and Mail. More

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