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Lawrence Martin (Bill Grimshaw)
Lawrence Martin (Bill Grimshaw)

Lawrence Martin

How 'Iffy' and the Liberals dropped the ball Add to ...

For a leadership that looked so promising at the start of the year, how did it come to this?

Michael Ignatieff recently pledged his party to bringing down the government and forcing an election. His party recoils at the thought. Here's Toronto MP Judy Sgro: "Ninety-nine per cent of us don't want an election."

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The Liberal Leader is under the gun for being held captive by a small group of unelected advisers. Members say he hasn't been reaching out. For a case in point, try this: Former Liberal prime minister Jean Chrétien told visitors recently that Prime Minister Stephen Harper calls him for consultation - they talk about foreign affairs - more often than does Mr. Ignatieff, the leader of his own party!

Iffy, as some now call him, has had just one meeting of his shadow cabinet all year, shadow member Gerard Kennedy confirms. Bob Rae, who was his chief rival for the leadership post, is making no secret of his disillusionment with Mr. Ignatieff's performance.

The party rides low in the polls, as do the leader's personal numbers. The Quebec lieutenant resigns. Caucus wants changes to the inner circle, although members backed away from making such a demand at their caucus meeting yesterday. It's not all grim - Mr. Ignatieff's team has put the party on sound financial footing and boosted membership numbers to record heights. But no one disputes the sagging fortunes. The Grit numbers are back where they were in the days of Stéphane Dion.

How did it come to this?

According to insiders and caucus members, there were two major factors.

One was a big assumption that turned out wrong. The initial strategy was predicated on a deep and dark recession that would drag the government down. The Liberals would only have to oppose, not propose. They would reboot organizationally and, with a leader offering much more allure than Mr. Dion, all would be well.

By early summer, the strategy was showing fault lines. The recession, softer than expected, wasn't taking a big bite out of Conservative support. The Grits couldn't win on Mr. Harper's negatives. They needed to retool, but - second big misstep - they failed to do so. Mr. Ignatieff was kept under wraps. Given his Zeus-like scholarly reputation, Canadians expected fresh and exciting ideas. But his inner sanctum, led by Ian Davey, whose ideas cascade from the old-time religion of his famous father Keith, convinced him otherwise. "The Opposition's duty is to oppose," Mr. Davey has emphatically stated.

The Liberal Leader was turned into the exact type of creature Canadians didn't want - another conventional politician. There had been a mystique about Mr. Ignatieff, but it began to fade. Once a grand communicator, he was reduced to boilerplate.

Don't bring out bold plans, they told him - the Conservatives will either steal them or attack them. Mr. Ignatieff also appointed a 31-year-old bureaucrat, Kevin Chan, as his policy chief. He was smart as a whip but miscast. The job required a veteran heavyweight. He was a kid.

Throughout the summer, the elevator music from the leader's office played on. There was some carping, but Mr. Ignatieff was committed to dancing with the ones who brung him - the Toronto group that had convinced him to leave Harvard and come to Ottawa. It became a replay of what happened to Paul Martin. A palace guard, jealously holding power, cutting off the arteries.

Adviser Paul Zed, not a Toronto club member, wanted Alex Himmelfarb as a new chief of staff. He was Ottawa-savvy, and Mr. Zed was prepared to stay on himself if that happened. But the plan was nixed. Mr. Zed, disillusioned because of this and other things - he had been told not to talk to the media - departed.

At Mr. Ignatieff's daily meetings with a small group of caucus members, dissent was increasingly frowned upon. "If you challenged Iggy's advisers," said one participant, "you got the leper treatment." Ken Dryden and Ms. Sgro have just been added to the morning group. It may be a sign of change.

Advisers always get the blame, sometimes unfairly. At the root of the problem is the man at the top. Mr. Ignatieff hasn't been able to figure out the kind of leader he wants to be. Traditional politics, he has discovered, requires intellectual dishonesty. Academics aren't good at that.

But there's the rub. His party members don't want him thinking in terms of traditional politics. They're telling him, correctly, that Canadians tune out that kind of junk. They want him to tune it out as well.

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