The next Liberal leader

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Michael Ignatieff's ability to lead his party to victory is now openly questioned in Quebec. His main man, Denis Coderre, has resigned as Quebec lieutenant following a big fight over a Montreal riding nomination. Coderre did not go quietly. He called a press conference to announce his resignation, pointing to problems ahead for the party in Quebec so long as Toronto-centred advisors to Ignatieff were in charge.

Behind the internal party dispute is the unspoken assumption that the Liberals will fail to supplant the Conservatives in the next election, and that subsequently, Ignatieff will have to resign. The Quebec leadership aspirants also expect that the Liberal party tradition of alternating francophone and anglophone leaders will open the door to a strong Quebec candidate.

The controversy leading to the Coderre departure surfaced in the Outremont riding now held by New Democrat Thomas Mulcair. As Quebec lieutenant, Coderre, had selected a candidate, businesswoman Nathalie Le Prohon. Suddenly, Martin Cauchon former MP for the riding popped up saying he wanted the nomination.

The controversy appeared to be settled last Sunday. First Le Prohon was pointed to another winnable riding, the seat briefly held by one-time Quebec Liberal cabinet minister Liza Frula in Jeanne-Leber, that had been offered to Cauchon.

Then Cauchon was told he could run in Outrement.

But Coderre revolted, claiming his moral authority as Quebec lieutenant had been undermined. In effect, Ignatieff was unable to prevent Cauchon, a Chrétien supporter, and co-president of the failed Bob Rae bid for the leadership, from claiming the nomination, and Coderre was not on board.

Cauchon, a former justice minister, with close ties to the Desmarais family, knows a lot about the ongoing Liberal party wars. He was forced to step aside as an MP by Paul Martin in favour of Jean Lapierre, Martin's choice as Quebec lieutenant. After Martin resigned as party leader Cauchon had been wooed by Liberals hoping to win back a riding they held (with the exception of 1988) in every election since Confederation, before Mulcair came along.

Both Coderre and Cauchon see themselves as the next Liberal leader. Their public fight shows that the internal war between the Chrétien and Martin camps is far from over. Coderre did not want a strong leadership rival such as Cauchon back in the Liberal caucus, because Coderre wants to run for leader as the strongest, most experienced candidate of the sitting MPs.

What raised the stakes in Quebec over the nomination battle is the growing realization that Ignatieff as a leadership figure is proving to be a dud. Potential leaders (at least in their own minds) are fighting to position themselves for the leadership race they see as likely to take place after the next election which could come as early as next spring or, less likely, this fall. Along with Coderre and Cauchon, Justin Trudeau's name emerges in leadership speculation. New Brunswick francophone Dominique LeBlanc would also run, as would Bob Rae.

Holding only 77 seats (out of total of 308) Liberals need to make significant gains to overtake the Conservatives (who hold 143 seats) to form even a minority government. Ignatieff has yet to show he has voter appeal in either Quebec, or Ontario, the provinces where governments are made and lost.

To supplant the Conservatives, the Liberals need to expand beyond their urban base in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver. None of the aspirant francophones have shown sufficient substance and appeal to create much interest in a leadership contest.

In itself the lack of leadership talent is a problem for the Liberals.

Even more worrisome for the Liberals is that the Conservatives, currently saddled with an unpopular leader have at least two attractive replacements with what it takes to get the party to majority territory. Alberta MP and Environment Minister Jim Prentice can pass for a moderate and (unlike Ignatieff) has a likeability quotient well above Stephen Harper. Former Conservative leader, and current Quebec premier Jean Charest is the obvious candidate to deliver his home province and lead Conservatives back to majority territory.

Liberal leadership politics look more and more like bare knuckle fights held in back alleys. After he lost to him, Jean Chrétien conspired to remove John Turner from the party leadership. Then Paul Martin did the same to Chrétien. The Ignatieff camp first worked to push Stéphane Dion from the leadership Dion had won fair and square in an open convention, and then to have Ignatieff named leader by the party executive, nixing a contested leadership convention.

Given the way Ignatieff took over the party leadership unopposed, both his erstwhile ally Coderre, and his rivals in the Rae camp, the former Chrétien people, recognize that Ignatieff cannot expect to continue as Liberal leader, unless the party gets more seats than the Conservatives in the next election.

Liberal ads featuring Ignatieff have not worked. The Conservative attack ads have hurt, and many more are in the works. The two Ignatieff policy speeches on foreign affairs and the economy, have not resonated with the public.

While Ignatieff prepares to move non-confidence in the Harper government this week in parliament, his supporters are starting to lose confidence in his leadership.

Duncan Cameron writes from Quebec City.

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