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Layton stakes his biggest bet as Jack of Hearts Add to ...

Mr. Layton sees no inconsistency between his background and his role as working-families champion. “My parents' message was, ‘Don't ever miss the opportunity to serve.'” But it was at McGill University that he moved toward the values of the NDP, won over by Tommy Douglas's unpopular defence of human rights after the use of the War Measures Act, and by the teachings of McGill philosopher Charles Taylor.

“He really laid out a concept of liberty that I found very powerful,” Mr. Layton says of the scholar he still dines with and studies (though he's an agonizingly slow reader whose struggles with print border on dyslexia). “Tommy [Douglas] sums it up well when he says that we can make a better world collectively, and that our individuality can flourish in the context of projects we can work on together. … These were values I'd been raised by my parents to believe in, but I hadn't nailed down the political thinking behind them.”

Mr. Layton's world-building prospects now depend on how he handles not only a hostile Conservative majority but the likely disarray of an Opposition that is, collectively, young, inexperienced and heavily weighted toward Quebec.

How to pull off this miracle? “Pray,” former NDP leader Ed Broadbent says with a laugh. “It's hardly a secret, but his managerial skills are, to put it euphemistically, going to be greatly challenged. I never dreamt in my lifetime that I was going to see a majority of the caucus come from a Quebec where we took the majority of the seats, with not a single seat from Saskatchewan. … Jack and [Deputy Leader] Tom Mulcair will have a tough job just getting them to be effective members of Parliament and to integrate them into the party's pan-Canadian view.”

The party's Orange Crush takeover of Quebec, the source of its new-found potency, undoubtedly had to do with a shared vision of social-democratic principles, Mr. Layton's nuanced critique of the Afghanistan mission and the way the NDP has (controversially) positioned itself to accommodate sovereigntist longings. But it was just as much about the ex-Montrealer who put on a vintage Canadiens jersey and hoisted a pint at a sports bar, who limped along the campaign trail with a human dignity not usually noticed in vote-chasing politicians, and who happily let himself be made fun of on the raucous must-see TV show Tout le monde en parle.

“Going on that show is like running the gantlet,” says Montreal commentator Anne Lagacé Dowson, a former NDP candidate. “And Jack does it incredibly well. … He's unfazed by the wackiness and the curveballs that they throw at him. People saw a choice between Gilles Duceppe's crabby, frustrated persona and Jack's smiling face and they said, ‘Why not give him a chance?'”

But to any who might be inclined to overestimate the NDP's gains, she warns: “The party's candidates have to be hyper-aware that it was Jack Layton who was elected, and not them.”

If the 59 Quebec MPs see that their political future depends on making the leader and the party look good, their next four years will proceed more smoothly. In turn, if Mr. Layton is to satisfy anyone beyond the party faithful, he'll need to find ways to manipulate the Tory majority.

“He can systematically pursue something in Question Period and propose alternatives that can influence the next election,” says Mr. Broadbent. “But also, when you raise issues persistently, consistently and credibly, they can be stolen from you by the governing party – and that's the highest form of flattery. … [Mr. Harper] doesn't share my values, but he does want to win, and any party that wants to win will reach beyond its own ideological base. The task for Jack is to get in some items that tempt the government, while building up popular opinion, so that in the next election he can be even more persuasive.”

Coming second federally may seem like victory to many long-time NDP supporters, but Mr. Layton's ambitions are different: Even though he talks about his ability to work with Mr. Harper – despite Mr. Harper's insistence to him personally that they have little in common, and criticisms from NDP commentators such as James Laxer that moving centrewards is a betrayal – he's not content with being Mr. Congeniality.

If he's spent eight years getting Canadians to take him this seriously, to the point where he destroyed the Bloc Québécois and sent a chastened Michael Ignatieff back to the classroom, it's not so he can languish as Mr. Harper's designated chew toy. Why play second banana as the country's social conscience when you can audition as prime-ministerial material?

Starry-eyed or shrewd?

Many observers will tell you that Mr. Layton is deluding himself – that he and his party aren't ready for prime time and may never be.

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