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Layton rides a wave - but can it take him to 24 Sussex?

Supporters pose for photos by NDP Leader Jack Layton's campaign bus at a campaign rally at Ecole secondaire du Versant in Gatineau, Que.

Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press

The dynamic of the final week of the federal election campaign will be determined by whether voters react with panic, delight or indifference to these four words: Prime Minister Jack Layton.

Mr. Layton and the NDP continue to hit unprecedented levels of national support, with two polls on Monday giving the party a double-digit lead in Quebec, enough to give the New Democrats a huge number of seats in the province. The Bloc Québécois appears to be in freefall; the Liberals are slipping into third place.

No one is talking about an outright win by the NDP on May 2. The Conservatives still have a substantial lead, and are still projected to win both the popular vote and the largest number of seats.

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But the extent of the NDP rise is such - assuming it holds - that the party could add a third notch on its belt: Killing off hopes of a Tory majority.

The latest poll by EKOS Research has the Conservatives at 34 per cent, narrowly ahead of the NDP at 28 per cent, with the Liberals at 24 per cent, with the Bloc at 6.2 per cent. Based on those numbers, EKOS is projecting that the Conservatives would see their seat count shrink to 131, while the NDP soared to 100, the Liberals fell to 62 and the Bloc was reduced to a mere 14 seats.

Under that scenario, Mr. Harper would win the election and have first crack at forming a government. But Mr. Layton, as Leader of the Official Opposition, would be in as nearly as strong a position as Mr. Harper. According to the EKOS projections, the NDP would be able to survive a confidence vote without the support of the Bloc. Presumably, Michael Ignatieff would not be able to carry on as leader if the Liberals were confronted with the humiliation of third-place status. That would leave the Liberals in a co-operative mood, boosting Mr. Layton's chances.

There are several hypothetical layers at work in the above scenario, not the least of which is a supposition that Mr. Layton would even attempt to form a government. And the only seat count that matters is the real one that emerges on May 2.

But the trends that Mr. Graves is pointing to are real. The NDP surge has displaced first the Bloc, and then the Liberals. It may still do so to the Conservatives, the only difference being that it would happen after election day.

Mr. Graves said there is little that the other parties can do on their own at this point to derail NDP momentum. However, voters may do so, if the current crop of polls lead them to recoil from the possibility not just of the NDP displacing the Liberals as the Official Opposition, but of Mr. Layton conceivably being in a position to become prime minister.

Mr. Graves believes that Quebec voters will react either with indifference, or even perhaps enthusiasm, at the notion of the NDP supplanting Mr. Harper.

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That will leave it up to the rest of Canada to decide whether the turn to the NDP is a welcome historic transformation to be embraced, or a harrowing flirtation with disaster narrowly averted.

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