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Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff speaks to reporters in the foyer of the House of Commons after Question Period on Sept. 28, 2009. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)
Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff speaks to reporters in the foyer of the House of Commons after Question Period on Sept. 28, 2009. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Wounded Ignatieff faces test of leadership Add to ...

Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff took direct control of his party in Quebec after his lieutenant reignited infighting Monday by quitting over interference from unnamed "Toronto advisers."

Montreal MP Denis Coderre's bitter resignation press conference, prompted by Mr. Ignatieff's reversal over the choice of a candidate in the riding of Outremont, heightens French-English and Toronto-Montreal tensions among the Liberals at a time when the party is trying to bring down Stephen Harper's Conservative government.

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"The message sent by recent events is this: If you want to have what you want in Quebec, all you have to do is short-circuit the party's Quebec authorities by talking to the leader's inner circle in Toronto," Mr. Coderre said in the most direct challenge to Mr. Ignatieff's leadership since he took power last January. Several Quebec organizers are expected to leave with Mr. Coderre's resignation as lieutenant for the province.

Mr. Ignatieff and Mr. Coderre had picked businesswoman Nathalie Le Prohon to run in Outremont, but Mr. Ignatieff buckled under internal pressure last week and approved the candidacy of former Liberal cabinet minister Martin Cauchon.

Mr. Ignatieff's inner circle of advisers consists of Toronto-based political operatives who helped him win the party's leadership and who dominate both the leader's office and the party's leadership. But Mr. Ignatieff dismissed Mr. Coderre's comments on their influence as unfounded.

"The thought that this party is managed in Toronto makes me laugh. It makes people laugh in British Columbia, it makes people laugh in Alberta, it makes people laugh in the Atlantic provinces," Mr. Ignatieff said. "I lead a pan-Canada formation."

Mr. Ignatieff added that he will not name a new Quebec lieutenant to replace Mr. Coderre, dropping the parallel structure that is unique to the province and decentralizes the party's organization.

Mr. Ignatieff said his party is in good shape in Quebec thanks to Mr. Coderre's recent work, with 68 candidates already picked for the province's 75 seats.

The latest round of internal discord undermined Liberal efforts to focus on a motion the party moved Monday and to be put to a vote on Thursday, that the House "has lost confidence in the government."

The NDP has said it will abstain or vote against the motion, ensuring the survival of the Conservative minority government, which may be just as well for the Liberals, given the discord in Quebec.

At his news conference, Mr. Coderre said that in the case of Outremont, Mr. Ignatieff chose to listen to "Toronto advisers who know nothing about the social and political realities of Quebec."

Mr. Coderre refused to provide names. Liberal officials said he was likely referring to Liberal Party president Alf Apps, who courted Mr. Cauchon as a candidate in recent months, and Liberal MP Bob Rae, who publicly supported Mr. Cauchon's efforts to return to politics after a five-year absence.

Mr. Coderre said he will continue to serve as a Liberal MP, and insisted he remains loyal to Mr. Ignatieff.

Mr. Cauchon was silent through the day, having been told to refuse media requests for comment.

Theories vary on why Outremont became a flashpoint, but the consensus in Liberal circles is that there was an overall lack of communication, fuelled in part by rivalry between Mr. Coderre and Mr. Cauchon, who represented the riding from 1993 to 2004 and was minister of justice in the Chrétien government.

Both have leadership aspirations, and they clashed in the 2006 leadership race, with Mr. Coderre supporting Mr. Ignatieff, and Mr. Cauchon in the corner of Mr. Rae.

Sources said that Mr. Apps approached Mr. Cauchon last June about a return to politics, and that Mr. Cauchon asked for the summer to mull it over.

However, Mr. Coderre worked with other Liberals in Quebec in recent months to persuade Mr. Ignatieff to appoint Ms. Le Prohon in Outremont, long a party stronghold.

After an initial decision was made in favour of Ms. Le Prohon, Mr. Cauchon's team obtained the support of Mr. Rae, who publicly called for a reversal of the decision.

A Liberal official said that Mr. Ignatieff's office "panicked" as the controversy raged and urged the leader to go back on his decision. Unaware that Mr. Coderre was about to quit as his Quebec lieutenant, Mr. Ignatieff heralded the decision as a show of unity on Friday.

"The true strength of the Liberal Party is on display today," Mr. Ignatieff said in a news release.

With a report from Bill Curry

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