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John Ibbitson

Who'll lead the Liberals for the next year? Add to ...

There are Liberals who are calling June Clarity Month, because some of the questions hanging over the party should be resolved. But not many people are asking the most immediately pressing question of all: Who’s going to lead the Liberals for the next year?

The party’s national board of directors will meet by teleconference next week, with two main items on the agenda. First, the board is expected to narrow down the date for the vote to choose a permanent leader.

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Spring 2013 is as far as they’ve gotten so far. But March is out because it would conflict with the federal budget. The most likely candidates are a Parliamentary break week in April, May or June, when MPs would be free to leave Ottawa.

The board is also expected to declare that, if Interim Leader Bob Rae wishes to pursue the permanent job, he will be released from his previous pledge not to, but will have to stand down.

Assuming Mr. Rae does choose to run, that means the board, in consultation with the caucus, will have to choose yet another interim leader. And that is no small choice.

Nycole Turmel’s troubled tenure heading the NDP reminded everyone of how much damage a poor interim leader can do. Granted, Thomas Mulcair speedily repaired that damage, but in this case the Liberal directors will be asking someone to lead the party for up to a year.

That is a long time to be the temporary voice of a national party. The interim leader – the fifth Liberal leader that Prime Minister Stephen Harper will have faced in just over six years – will need to impose caucus discipline, define the Liberal message, improve party fundraising and organization, and generally make voters feel good about the Liberals. With the party at 20 per cent in the polls or below, a bad choice could be a very bad choice.

Obviously, the next interim leader must come from the caucus. And since the party is pinning much of its hopes on displacing the NDP in Quebec next time out, command of French as well as English is an essential prerequisite, which rules out Saskatchewan MP Ralph Goodale.

Toronto MP John McCallum is a possibility, but he is 62 and not the best communicator. Other strong candidates – Montreal MP Marc Garneau, Ottawa MP David McGuinty, New Brunswick MP Dominic LeBlanc – may be running for the permanent leadership, and would be disqualified.

One name that gets mentioned is Nova Scotia MP Scott Brison. He has categorically ruled out any run for permanent leader.

Economically conservative, socially progressive, telegenic and able (just) to speak adequate French, the Member for Kings-Hants would be a strong candidate.

Mr. Brison is a former Progressive Conservative MP. Since Mr. Rae is a former NDPer, choosing Mr. Brison as his successor would afford a certain symmetry.

Some Liberals are worried about how well Mr. Mulcair is doing, and wish the leadership vote could be advanced to this autumn. The Liberals could be about to go through the dubious process of choosing Bob Rae as interim leader, making him step down for a year, and then handing him the job again.

But the party is determined to give itself plenty of time to debate not only who should lead it, but what it should stand for. So the next interim leader, whoever he or she might be, will have the job for a while. The party would do well to choose well.

Coda: Much of the speculation about who the next Liberal leader might be centres on Bob Rae and on Montreal MP Justin Trudeau, who insists he doesn’t want the job. But another name is starting to surface: Jean Marc Fournier.

Jean Charest’s justice minister impressed the Liberals when he represented the province during the fight over the long gun registry and the Conservatives’ crime bill, both of which the Quebec government strenuously opposed.

The veteran cabinet minister also spent time as Michael Ignatieff’s principal secretary, before returning to provincial politics.

His French roots, federalist credentials and English are all impeccable. But the first big, unanswered question is: Does he want the job?

More to come on this another day.

Follow on Twitter: @JohnIbbitson

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