There is also the very real possibility of forming a government for the Liberals. Seat extrapolation from current public opinion data shows a good chance of the Liberals holding the plurality of seats. While Stephen Harper has shown himself flexible in interpreting constitutional convention, such a result did cause Paul Martin to resign as PM.
The drag on the Liberals is the knowledge that waiting increases their likelihood of forming government. Even if they sustain the government now, and suffer some mild short-term pain, they stand to enjoy major long-term gains as the public continues to grow more disquieted by the Harper administration.
For the NDP, the election almost certainly means a decline in the number of seats. The New Democrats are consistently polling below their showing in the last election, and their new members have not enjoyed a long enough time in office to gain much incumbency advantage. For Jack Layton, that outcome - along with general grumbling in the party - probably means his fourth election as leader would be his last. That outcome is more costly than Ignatieff's.
But the shame outcome for Layton is also higher. He made a huge deal out of Stephane Dion's votes to support the government in 2007 and 2008. Even abstaining on the estimates now could cost Layton heavily. In fact, Layton may calculate that the costs of capitulation are higher than the disaster of losing 10 to 20 MPs to resurgent Liberals in a party where lily-white principle can been seen as more important than actual result.
Gilles Duceppe also stands to lose seats, although he also does have the potential to make some inroads at the expense of the Conservatives. His party is also less prissy about making deals with the governing party than the NDP or Liberals, as the entire raison d'etre of the Bloc is extracting concessions.
The problem for Duceppe is Stephen Harper cannot be seen making a deal with him, after his "separatist coalition" rhetoric of last fall. Harper can only hope that the looming pension trigger for a number of Bloc MPs is enough of an incentive that the BQ decides to abstain without a deal in return.
The Conservatives stand to lose the most in an election. There is almost no scenario in which they gain more seats than they lose in an election now.
But what makes Harper hard to push around is his knowledge that an election now would be preferable to an election later. Recessions don't end smoothly and with a sudden burst of optimism, especially when the Americans look set to use inflation to get out of their doldrums. Things are only going to get uglier for Harper and an election that sees him still holding a plurality of seats still seems likely.
Harper might actually want an election now, even though it would see him lose as many as 30 MPs simply because any election that sees him stay as PM means he gets to stay as PM.
So what will happen?
Frankly, I think there is a very good chance of an election. The complexity of the game, and the inability of the parties to differentiate false signalling from real intention makes it almost impossible to see who is closest to the edge of the cliff and who has two feet out the door.
More importantly, the gap between the mild pain for blinking and the catastrophe for an election is not wide enough on Parliament Hill. There are upsides and downsides to both choices for all four parties, and in the machismo thunderdome of the Commons, wisdom is not in surplus.
And an election wouldn't be a bad thing.
This has been the least productive Parliament in memory. Other than creating a $50-billion deficit repaving a few highways, its accomplishments are nil. All four parties bear some blame for that, although primarily an intellectually stalled Conservative Party.
An election that held out the promise of real change would be preferable to the stalemate of bankrupt brinksmanship the nation has endured for the past five years.
Minority government has been tried and proven wanting. At a time of fierce global competition for resources, a financial collapse, severe recession, flu pandemic, and six score dead in Afghanistan, we spent the last two weeks yammering about lost binders and misplaced recorders. Seeking constant electoral advantage has completely overtaken the hard work of government, and Canadians can no longer afford their elected officials neglecting their duty.
Bring on an election. Falling over the cliff has to be better than this.