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Jack Layton was admired by many who did not share his political views: Former prime minister Brian Mulroney said he was 'an exceptional political leader and an exceptional person.' (Peter Bregg/The Canadian Press Images/Peter Bregg/The Canadian Press Images)
Jack Layton was admired by many who did not share his political views: Former prime minister Brian Mulroney said he was 'an exceptional political leader and an exceptional person.' (Peter Bregg/The Canadian Press Images/Peter Bregg/The Canadian Press Images)

John Ibbitson

Now, no one stands in Stephen Harper's way Add to ...

Jack Layton would have been the first person to calculate the political consequences of his passing, and those consequences are profound.

The most powerful voice championing a socially democratic future for Canada is stilled. The one person to meld, or at least paper over, the implacable contradictions within the NDP caucus is no longer there to listen, cajole and, when needed, knock heads.

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Every party opposing Stephen Harper’s Conservatives in the House of Commons is leaderless, affording him the kind of political space for action that few prime ministers, if any, have enjoyed.

Someday, from somewhere, a voice will rise to challenge the Conservative hegemony. It could have been Jack Layton. But now it must be someone else.

Like so many who did not share Mr. Layton’s political views, Brian Mulroney is mourning his death. He first knew the NDP Leader through his father, Robert, who served in the former Conservative prime minister’s cabinet.

“This represents an enormous loss for the party, and more importantly, for the country,” Mr. Mulroney offered in an interview. “He was an exceptional political leader and an exceptional person.”

The two had talked shortly after the May election. Mr. Layton is the first federalist leader since Mr. Mulroney to elect a majority of MPs from Quebec, and he would have faced the same challenges Mr. Mulroney faced in marrying a large nationalist francophone contingent to a party with roots in the West.

They talked for an hour “about how you integrate that large Quebec caucus into a national party, and how you keep them all happy and motivated,” Mr. Mulroney said. “He didn’t want the caucus to founder.”

It was going to be a formidable task for Mr. Layton to weld the two halves into a coherent and united whole. It will be nearly insurmountable for a new leader lacking his skill and experience.

The task may fall to Quebec MP Thomas Mulcair – an impressive mind, but irascible at times – or Vancouver MP Libby Davies – to the left on the NDP’s spectrum. Or there may be someone in caucus or outside it who will lead the party and seek to convince Canadians that, next time, social democrats deserves a shot at government.

But here again, the very large contingent of Quebec MPs could prove as much hindrance as help. Example: Gary Doer was the popular NDP premier of Manitoba for 10 years, and is earning rave reviews as Canada’s ambassador to the United States. But he doesn’t speak French.

The loss of Mr. Layton will, inevitably, give a temporary boost to the Liberals, if only because Interim Leader Bob Rae has authority to speak on national affairs. But with that party also facing a leadership contest, and struggling with declining support and internal divisions, the Conservatives have little to fear from the opposition benches for some time to come.

And the premiers are also silent, as five provinces prepare for fall elections, with a sixth, British Columbia, possibly joining them and Alberta distracted by the provincial Conservative leadership race.

We are embarked on a generational sea change in Canadian politics. The only constant in all of this is Stephen Harper.

From that sea change, a new cast of political characters will emerge. One of them, or someone else farther down the line, will rise to challenge the new Conservative juggernaut.

The search for that person will dominate federal politics for years to come.

Beyond this political speculation, there is simply sadness. During their conversation, Mr. Mulroney warned Mr. Layton that he might not want to try to become prime minister too hard, because “Stornoway is actually nicer than 24 Sussex.”

He said Mr. Layton laughed and replied: “Whether that’s true or not, Brian, I don’t want to stay here too long.”

Jack Layton took the NDP from protest party to Official Opposition, and he had every intention of moving into the prime minister’s residence, drafty windows and all.

It would have been grand to watch him try.

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