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NDP Leader Jack Layton greets supporters in Toronto after his party surged to Official Opposition status in the May 2, 2011 federal election. (Kevin Van Paassen/Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail)
NDP Leader Jack Layton greets supporters in Toronto after his party surged to Official Opposition status in the May 2, 2011 federal election. (Kevin Van Paassen/Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail)

New Democrats

Layton gears up for new gig as prime minister in waiting Add to ...

New Democrats woke up Tuesday to a new role as the Official Opposition and now must work to answer a new question: Can they make Canadians think of them as a possible government?

Jack Layton's stunning election breakthrough means he now leads major party with 102 seats that represents the main voice for Quebec. Can his largely inexperienced team shape up quickly, or will cracks emerge for all to see? The NDP is working to put in place its transition plan.

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The party hopes it has permanently replaced the long-dominant Liberals as the main alternative to the Conservatives, but can't afford to revive their hopes by letting the orange surge look like a flash in the pan. A first impression that the bigger NDP is not ready for prime time could take long efforts to erase.

"The House of Commons is likely to come back by the end of the month, which only gives us a few weeks," national campaign director Brad Lavigne said. "So we have to gather our caucus. We'll have our first conference meeting [by phone]probably in the next 48 hours, to touch base. Already, emails have gone out to the newly-elected team with instructions and updates on how things unfold."

Mr. Layton moved quickly in his election-night speech - which he made after midnight in Toronto - to emphasize that the party will be moderate, not radical, and he stressed that it will take a sober view of fiscal matters.

"We're committed to making progress carefully and prudently, a practical step at a time just as we have every time our party has assumed office in this country," the NDP Leader said.

Mr. Lavigne noted that the party has long been working on a transition plan for its role as Official Opposition, including managing a larger caucus of MPs, bulking up party staff, bringing in more Quebeckers and making sure it has a bigger, solid research-and-policy wing that helps the NDP gain credibility.

"The government-in-waiting," he said, "that's going to be the first time for us. So we're going to accelerate the process by which we prepare the party for governing: level of perfectionism, level of policy."

Like a prime minister, an opposition leader picks a senior staff whose make-up can send public signals - and Mr. Layton is likely to turn to NDPers with government experience, and perhaps former senior civil servants, to solidify his office. He will likely want to send a signal that he has weighty advisers, notably on economic matters.

The NDP caucus will now be dominated by Quebec MPs, who will change the culture of a party whose centre of gravity has long been in Ontario and the West. And it will have to find a way of navigating the province's national question - some of its new MPs have been sovereigntists and New Democrats will have to contain differences over their approach to Quebec.

The party will also likely warn its host of rookie MPs against speaking too much to reporters to avoid immediate missteps.

But Mr. Lavigne noted that one thing the party now knows is that with a Conservative majority government holding power four years, it doesn't have to rush everything out the door at once to prepare for an unpredictable election. "The context of a minority or a majority is different," he said. "For one thing, we know the time frame."

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