Tom Mulcair's last chances just kept going wrong. The NDP Leader needed to win New Democrats over in the week before Sunday's leadership review. Instead, he lost more of them.
He got caught in a crossfire between his party's activists and its Albertans – and both turned against him.
The site of the NDP convention turned out to be deadly: When he tried to appeal to leftist activists opposed to oil pipelines, he angered the new power in the party, Rachel Notley's Alberta NDP. And 345 Alberta New Democrats happened to be just a short drive away from a vote against him.
The activists never believed Mr. Mulcair really embraced the so-called Leap Manifesto, a call for a radical left turn, including rejecting new pipelines. The Notley New Democrats didn't think he did enough to shut that Leap talk down.
On Sunday, Mr. Mulcair, who eight months ago was topping the polls, couldn't muster majority support from his own party. The blunt rejection surprised the delegates. Mr. Mulcair obviously didn't expect it, either. But he bravely faced the room, urged unity and walked off.
His election loss last fall, of course, was the sin the party found hard to forget. Mr. Mulcair won the NDP leadership in 2012 on the promise he could take it to government, and on the idea he was a potential prime minister. His own party respected him rather than loved him, and after that disappointment, there was no emotional connection to secure his leadership.
The way Mr. Mulcair campaigned to election defeat especially rankled: His cautious, balanced-budget platform seemed to New Democrats like moderation to excess. Perhaps he might have recovered party support, but he never made the big, public campaign on a new vision skeptics wanted. In the meantime, New Democrats started to look longingly at the surprising rise in the United States of Bernie Sanders, the unabashedly socialist candidate for the Democratic nomination.
That's how Mr. Mulcair went down to the last week in trouble, and walked into the crossfire.
He decided he had to nod to his own party's left. The Leap Manifesto, a short, dramatic leftist agenda co-written by activists including Avi Lewis – the grandson of former NDP leader David Lewis and son of onetime Ontario leader Stephen Lewis – and his wife and co-author, Naomi Klein, was rising in NDP fashion. Mr. Mulcair wouldn't touch the Leap during the election campaign but it was shaping up as the focal point for the left at the convention.
On Wednesday, in an interview with the CBC, Mr. Mulcair tried to appeal to Leap backers – even saying he'd work to keep Alberta oil in the ground if his party voted for that at the convention.
By Thursday, Ms. Notley's Alberta NDP was mobilizing. "Unacceptable," deputy premier Sarah Hoffman said of Mr. Mulcair's remarks. Ms. Notley was just this week making clear to Albertans she's unequivocally behind a new pipeline. Her party deemed the Leap debate a threat – in an oil bust, it's political poison to be linked to a federal party discussing the rejection of pipelines. On Friday, Ms. Notley's environment minister called the Leap a "betrayal" of Albertan NDP voters. On Saturday, Ms. Notley, the new hero of the NDP, came to the convention to speak against it.
That was the foreground. In the background, the Alberta delegates hardened against Mr. Mulcair – they blamed him for failing to shut down the Leap, or manage it. And the party's left never really believed Mr. Mulcair was ever going to be Bernie Sanders.
The last of the last chances was missed Sunday morning. For the remaining undecided who wanted a way to support him, Mr. Mulcair's speech, the one he described as the most important of his career, didn't deliver. It was supposed to tug on some of the party's sensitive strings, such as inequality. It reached for the union organizer's call for solidarity. "Stand with me," Mr. Mulcair asked them, only a few minutes before the voting opened. They did gradually give him a standing ovation, but by then it had largely fallen flat – much of it was boiler plate, mixed with mild mea culpa – and there were pin-drop moments and uneven applause.
Mr. Mulcair's party never had a deep emotional bond with him. At the convention in Edmonton, Mr. Mulcair's closest confidantes looked alone in the hallways. The leader wasn't surrounded. It was always going to be hard to re-anchor his leadership after last fall. And in the week that mattered most, it turned worse.