This wasn't much of a move on its face, but to an alert bargainer it was a big signal. We had moved off our principle that the cabinet should be proportionate to the caucuses. We had dropped our "ask" by 12.5 per cent. And we hadn't said any closing words - "final and best offer" - i.e. there was still room in our minds to negotiate some more.
It didn't seem to us that these signals were picked up by the Liberal team, who appeared to still be having a hard time with the idea of socialists around the big table in any kind of role. Dawn Black and I didn't think we had a mandate to go much farther, especially when it seemed clear the Liberal team didn't have instructions that got them close enough to us to permit an agreement. It was therefore time to move this discussion to a better venue, preferably between Layton and Dion directly, followed by a clean-up session with fewer people involved. Punting the issue out of the room for a while would also have the virtue of creating a window for the Bloc to speak to the Liberals about their unwillingness to support a Liberal-only cabinet.
Black and I therefore suggested a three-step way forward: that we finish the rest of the coalition accord at this session; that we then go back to our principals for further instructions on the issue of the proportions within the cabinet, and perhaps have them speak directly to each other; and that Metcalfe and I then meet one-on-one early the following morning to finalize the government accord.
We went back to the laptop and projector and worked amicably on the rest of the coalition accord.
We agreed on a "no surprises" clause, cribbed from the New Zealand governing accord.
The Liberals proposed and we agreed to a "standing committee of the accord," chaired by the prime minister. They had drawn this idea from some of their own reading of other coalition accords. It created a formal mechanism for coalition principals to meet regularly to make sure the coalition was on track. We stapled into this the idea of a committee of respected party leaders who would assist in dealing with disputes. Agreed. A few other points were dealt with, and we were done.
We adjourned to report to our principals. We had a completed coalition accord, with one issue outstanding. We wanted seven cabinet seats out of 24. The last Liberal offer was three.
Later that night, I tried to see how Metcalfe was coming along on our remaining issue. I called him for the first time at 7:00 p.m. and left a message on his cellphone. I echoed this with a BlackBerry note telling him I'd left him a message, my phone number attached. At 7:27 p.m. he replied: "Do you have anything from your side?" I replied: "I have a bit of room to manoeuvre." Metcalfe (7:37 p.m.): "I think I can get some movement but would help if I had an idea of what room you have."
Jack Layton and Anne McGrath left Centre Block to attend the annual press gallery dinner.
I called Metcalfe and this time he picked up my call. We spoke briefly, dancing around each other. Metcalfe told me he had been authorized to canvass the leadership candidates about the issue.
I reported my conversation with Metcalfe to Layton on his BlackBerry (9:05 p.m.): "Heard from Libs. They are canvassing three leadership candidates on Dion proposal to offer four seats. I told them not to make that a bottom line but they're close. They agreed to leave themselves some flex." Via Layton's BB, Anne McGrath replied (9:32 p.m.): "Anne here. Showed this message to Jack. He nodded."
Around 1 a.m., Layton and McGrath returned from the press gallery dinner. They reported seeing Ignatieff and Kory Teneycke, the Prime Minister's communications director, huddled together in an intense conversation that went on for some time.
That didn't sound encouraging.
It was time to call it a day.
Tomorrow: Things come together
(Editorial cartoon by Brian Gable/The Globe and Mail)
Copyright © 2009 Brian Topp