The times are hard for the Bloc Quebeçois, and NDP leader Jack Layton, of all people, may be about to make them even harder.

Over the past year, the federal sovereigntist party has seen some of its youngest and brightest MPs leave for greener provincial pastures.

By summer, the Bloc’s kissing cousins in the National Assembly could well be out of government. That would cut the federal party off from its convenient direct connection to power in Quebec.

With sovereignty in a slump, and a new, more popular leader in sight for the Liberal Party of Canada, the next federal election is looking like an uphill battle.

But while conventional wisdom has it that Paul Martin could sweep Quebec in the next election, the Liberal frontrunner is not necessarily the darkest cloud on the Bloc’s horizon.

In fact, the advent of Jack Layton as leader of the NDP has many sovereigntist strategists more rattled than the long-expected installation of Martin as the country’s next prime minister.

That’s because in a one-on-one fight with the Liberals, the Bloc has a fighting chance of holding its own. It did as much last fall when it held on to two seats in the face of a strong challenge from the Liberal party.

At the time, the sight of Martin in the leadership window did little to attract lapsed sovereigntists to the federalist camp.

Provincially, the sharp rise of l’Action d