Michael Ignatieff called Stéphane Dion on Saturday after a newspaper article alleged his supporters were trying to weaken Mr. Dion's leadership of the national Liberal Party by interfering in a crucial Montreal by-election.
The deputy Liberal leader assured Mr. Dion that he was up to no funny business and offered his help in Monday's by-election in Outremont.
Mr. Dion, according to one of his senior aides, accepted what his deputy said. In an effort to underline that message, Mr. Dion's chief of staff, Andrew Bevan, asked Eleni Bakopanos, a key Dion strategist and former Montreal MP, to call Mr. Ignatieff and reassure him.
The Halifax Chronicle-Herald had quoted unidentified "Dion loyalists" as making these allegations. Ms. Bakopanos told her colleague that Mr. Dion's office was "on-side" and that "Michael was a partner," the aide said.
Mr. Ignatieff had not been planning to go to Outremont again - he had been to the riding several times during the summer campaign - but decided he should go to show solidarity. By Monday afternoon he was there, working the phones and trying to get out the vote.
But it wasn't enough. Not even close. The Liberals lost their stronghold Monday when New Democratic star candidate Thomas Mulcair beat Mr. Dion's handpicked contender, Jocelyn Coulon, by more than 3,000 votes. The Dion Liberals also lost badly in the two other Quebec by-elections.
"It was a disaster," said the Dion aide, blaming the Grit loss in Outremont on a combination of factors, including poor organization and lack of communications and of clear policy on Quebec.
Two days before the newspaper article appeared, internal party polls showed the Liberals were about six points behind the NDP and in danger of losing the riding by 1,000 votes. By Monday night, however, the spread had grown to 20 points.
"The only intervening event was the ... storm of negative publicity," the aide said.
The article had spread like wildfire through Liberal circles over the weekend. Although, the allegations have been denied by Ignatieff supporters, the damage was done. Volunteers were demoralized and one Liberal official said there was hostility toward Ignatieff supporters at the Outremont headquarters on Monday.
A Liberal MP from Toronto, who was heading to Montreal Sunday to help out, turned the car around at Port Hope, only 100 kilometres into the journey, after being e-mailed the newspaper article.
"I am so very tired of the Punic Wars of the last decade," said the MP, who supported Mr. Ignatieff in last year's leadership race, comparing the ancient wars between Rome and Carthage to the fighting between the Chrétienites and Martinites.
A Liberal who works on Parliament Hill said he arrived in Montreal to find chaos.
The campaign had run out of literature and he and his friends, who thought they were to help get out the vote, ended up photocopying and folding brochures. These volunteers, who did not know Montreal well, were told to pick a poll they could help canvass.
The Dion aide said their team doesn't yet have the "capacity to run a by-election."
"It's not a well-oiled machine," he said.
He said the team around Mr. Dion is fairly new and it was not entirely clear who was in charge. For example, Mr. Dion and his crew spent a lot of time in the riding, and strong Quebec MPs such as Denis Coderre and Pablo Rodriguez brought in their helpers.
As well, the Liberal message in Quebec is not resonating.
Party pollster Michael Marzolini told the Liberal caucus at its annual summer retreat in Newfoundland in August that there was "no room for mediocre policies," according to an insider. Mr. Marzolini told MPs that to win, Liberal policies need to be more substantive.
"Quebeckers are not buying what we are selling," the Dion official said.