Michael Ignatieff needs to get a grip - on his caucus, on his party and on his staff. Too many of his Liberals are going rogue.
Eight of his MPs voted with the Tories this week to kill the long-gun registry. The Chrétien Liberals created the registry, spilling political blood to frame it into law. Privately, in the closed-door caucus meeting on Wednesday, Mr. Ignatieff urged his MPs to stand together and vote against the government. His pleas fell on deaf ears. However, Mr. Ignatieff reminded reporters that he was allowing his MPs to vote freely, and that it was a private member's bill, not government legislation.
This week, too, Liberal president Alf Apps sent a note to colleagues and party supporters comparing the H1N1 vaccine crisis to the Bush government's handling of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. More than a few Liberals were upset with the Apps hyperbole.
Then, Mr. Ignatieff's hand-picked national party director, Rocco Rossi, was on Twitter, joking about swine flu and party patronage, saying "pork before swine." A veteran Tory strategist called the Rossi joke "offensive." Mr. Ignatieff didn't offer any comment on the Apps/Rossi controversies.
It doesn't end there: Ignatieff senior staffer Mark Sakamoto appeared on national television as an "ordinary citizen" complaining about the supply of the H1N1 vaccine. His cover was blown; the incident was embarrassing.
Mr. Sakamoto denied he was a plant. As parents of a newborn, he and his wife are on the priority list for the vaccine, and were waiting in line at a clinic when the interviewer approached. However, some believe the Ignatieff adviser should have known better.
Clearly, this behaviour is unnerving the Grits, with one Liberal describing the unwinding of the Ignatieff Liberals as being of "biblical proportions."
Perhaps a slight exaggeration. But it is still instructive as it is happening when no one is in charge.
Mr. Ignatieff's new chief of staff is Peter Donolo. His ETA on the Hill is Nov. 17. Mr. Donolo's predecessor, Ian Davey, a close friend and adviser to Mr. Ignatieff, is on a beach in Florida with his girlfriend, Jill Fairbrother, the very capable director of communications to Mr. Ignatieff.
The two are mulling over their future. It is not clear whether they will return, and if they do, in what capacity.
Amid all this uncertainty is an undercurrent of restiveness in the caucus about Mr. Davey's treatment. His imminent departure was leaked to the media before he even had a chance to speak to Mr. Ignatieff, and while Ms. Fairbrother was still denying it. Some MPs wonder where is the loyalty of the leader, who has been silent about the situation.
This rogue behaviour, meanwhile, is providing great fodder for the government, which is accusing the Ignatieff Liberals of being so base as to exploit the flu pandemic.
"It is very sad and unfortunate that the Ignatieff Liberals are desperately attempting to politicize the H1N1 preparedness efforts of the federal and provincial governments," the PMO said in its "Alert" response to the Sakamoto television appearance. And in Question Period this week, Tory cabinet ministers repeated that same "politicization" refrain.
Have the Liberals lost their way?
EKOS national pollster Frank Graves says not yet. But they need to walk a fine line. Handled properly, the flu issue gives the Liberals an opportunity to show their stuff by keeping the government's feet to the fire. He cautions them not to "wheel out the heavy artillery" until they are sure the government has grossly mishandled the situation. So far that does not appear to be the case.
"To do that at this stage you may end up looking basically disingenuous," he said.
Mr. Graves has some sympathy for the Grits. "They are having a bad time in the polls, and they see a lob ball coming in and they just take a wild swing at it. … You kind of feel a little sorry for them."
He believes that with Mr. Donolo's experience, Mr. Ignatieff can rein in the Liberal outliers:
"Certainly a guy like Peter will be able to sort through what's a real opportunity and a real exposed flank versus what's just a story of the day."
We'll see in a couple of weeks.