Brian Topp, the man who wants to succeed Jack Layton as leader of the NDP, was in Montreal last Thursday and visited La Presse for an editorial board meeting.
First impression: Mr. Topp, a rather small and roundish man dressed in frumpy, outmoded clothes – and obviously used to keeping a low profile – looks like anything but the official opposition leader he wants to become. He is not the type of man who stops conversations when he enters a room – but Michael Ignatieff was, and it didn't help him much.
Mr. Topp, 51, is gentle, modest, genial and serious, yet with a wry, self-deprecating sense of humour. As he is now, before stylists, speechwriters, and image-makers start working on him, he looks like the guy next door – decent and reassuring, someone you'd trust with your children.
A pleasant surprise was the quality of Mr. Topp's French – he speaks it much better than either Prime Minister Stephen Harper or Mr. Layton. No wonder, since French is actually his mother tongue, a language he learned from a francophone mother who had been schooled by the famously demanding Ursuline nuns in Quebec City. French was the language at home, since his father, an anglophone from the Eastern Townships, was thoroughly bilingual.
Mr. Topp has the style and behaviour of the political strategist he's been for so long. He speaks in a low voice, with a quasi-confidential tone and an occasional wink. One easily imagines him writing position papers, devising strategies, sitting around a table with other backroom boys. It's harder to imagine him on the hustings.
How can this man who has never run for office or had to deal with the turmoil of parliamentary life face tough political animals such as Mr. Harper or Bob Rae, the interim Liberal leader? He wouldn't be good in a shooting match, but his arguments would be sound because he's obviously very bright, knows a great deal about politics, and is the ultimate Canadian: After 30 years in Quebec, he worked in Ottawa, Regina and Vancouver and is now a Torontonian.
He's under no illusion that the NDP could gain more seats in Quebec: "Fifty-nine MPs, it's already fabulous and we can't be too greedy," he says. He wants to consolidate the new Quebec base, but the hard work will be to get between 50 and 60 more seats in English Canada.
Does he believe it will be difficult to integrate the rookie Quebec MPs into the party? "The perspective of a victory (in 2014) is a powerful incentive for unity," he says with a mischievous smile.
What's his model of government? He quickly refers to Roy Romanow's NDP government in Saskatchewan, where he served from 1993 to 2000 as Mr. Romanow's deputy chief of staff. The tradition he identifies with is Prairie socialism, a form of social democracy inspired by the political culture of the farmers who were among the founders of the party. Farmers hate debt, and NDP governments in the Prairies have been known for their fiscal restraint.
Mr. Topp is a moderate in other ways. For instance, he doesn't like the way the Liberals demonize the Prime Minister. "Mr. Harper is an adversary; he's not a monster."
Such an approach is also a matter of strategy, since the seats Mr. Topp would need to reach a majority are all held by Conservatives. He can't antagonize those who voted for the Tories by appearing too radical or overly rude toward Mr. Harper. This strategy fits well with his mild-mannered, rational character.