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Long-gun registry vote highlights divide within Liberal Party

Yukon MP Larry Bagnell, left, and Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff both voted to preserve the long-gun registry. Mr. Bagnell's vote may bring negative repercussions during the next election.

Vince Fedoroff/The Canadian Press

On Wednesday night, Zsuzsanna Zsohar and Melissa Craig, two political wives, sat in the upper gallery of the House of Commons to watch their husbands vote on the controversial long-gun registry.

The women's presence in the chamber underscored just how unrelenting politics can be.

Ms. Zsohar was there to support her husband, Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff, as he voted to save the registry - and his political leadership.

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Ms. Craig was there for her husband, Yukon Liberal MP Larry Bagnell, who was forced by Mr. Ignatieff to vote to save the registry - a move that will most likely put his political future in jeopardy.

For Ms. Zsohar and Mr. Ignatieff, the outcome of the vote was a happy one. He had survived a crucial test of his leadership.

Although he had whipped the vote - demanding that eight of his MPs reverse their positions - it had not been clear if his caucus would stick together. When the vote passed by the slimmest of margins - 153 to 151 - the smile on his face and enthusiastic handshakes he received from some of his colleagues told his story.

For Ms. Craig and Mr. Bagnell, however, the vote was very difficult. The emotion on Mr. Bagnell's face told one part of his story; the tears told another.

Mr. Bagnell is an MP who represents a rural, northern riding. Voting to save the registry that so many of his constituents detest puts intense pressure on him in the next election. Without a doubt, the Harper Tories are looking to take his riding; they will remind voters how he reversed himself and voted with his "Toronto" leader.

Adding to the political pressure, however, was something else, something more profound - his sadness over the fact that his wife had suffered a miscarriage just 10 days earlier.

"We just wanted to support each other," explained Mr. Bagnell about his wife's presence in the gallery. "It's a hard time for both of us."

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And some of his colleagues are having a hard time with the fairness of all this - putting pressure on Mr. Bagnell to come to Parliament Hill to cast a vote that could end his political career.

"Cheering what?" asked one Liberal MP who was stunned by the elation on the faces of colleagues when the vote passed. "Cheering a failed policy ... forcing people to swallow themselves whole?"

Mr. Bagnell, 60, is a beloved character on Parliament Hill. He arrived in Ottawa after the 2000 election, a kind of nutty-professor bachelor, who loved nothing more than to sit in the Commons and listen to the debates. He would even volunteer to take his colleagues' House duty shifts.

Life changed for him in 2007, when he married 29-year-old Melissa Craig. She had proposed after they had been dating for several months. It was the first marriage for both.

In 2008 Mr. Bagnell became a father. Their little girl is never far from his arms, already attending Liberal events.

Mr. Bagnell is not the only Liberal MP to have to reverse his position and face the wrath of his constituents and the Tories.

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For example, B.C. Liberal Keith Martin won his riding in the last election by 67 votes. The whip was on him as it was on Anthony Rota, the North Bay Liberal MP, who may also have a difficult time in his northern Ontario in the next campaign.

Mr. Bagnell is trying to put a good face on things. "As you know it was a whipped vote so that was predetermined," he said. "And I've always made it clear in my riding that I would never leave the party over this. So it's not a surprise to people in my riding."

But he's not naive.

"I've always lost votes over this but this time this time I have had a lot more people supporting the registry ... and some of them say they are the silent majority," he contends. "I can't tell if that's true because there are a lot of people who are passionately against the registry as well."

On Thursday, Mr. Bagnell and his wife headed home, stopping first in Calgary to pick up their little girl, who had stayed with her grandparents while they were in Ottawa.

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