The dynamic between Jack Layton and Gilles Duceppe has long seemed to be akin to the in-laws of your in-laws that you run into at a wedding: vaguely friendly, but a bit of a distraction from those you really want to chat up.
At least that used to be the case. With NDP support continuing to grow in Quebec, Mr. Duceppe is now taking square aim at Mr. Layton - witness the Bloc Québécois Leader's odd cross-examination of his NDP rival in Tuesday night's English debates. The days when the Bloc could treat the NDP as a somewhat-sympathetic irrelevancy are gone.
Mr. Duceppe demanded to know whether Mr. Layton supported extending Bill 101 to federal workers. Mr. Layton danced around the question, saying he would like a similar "framework." Forget a framework, Mr. Duceppe shot back - will you support extending Bill 101?
The exchange undoubtedly mystified many Canadians outside Quebec (for the record, the Bill 101 matter is Mr. Duceppe's attempt to either have Quebec's language laws extinguish federal powers, or in the alternative, demonstrate that the Québécois-nation motion is an empty gesture). But it does point to an important dynamic in the Quebec campaign: the NDP is a credible - and perhaps lethal - threat to the Bloc.
The polls show historically high support for the NDP in the province. In the latest Nanos Research poll, the NDP is at 17.9 per cent, in third place, with the Bloc at 38.6 per cent. The NDP's support is up nearly six percentage points from its 2008 results, although that increase is within the regional poll's margin of error.
Other polls put the NDP in an even stronger position. An April 4-5 Angus Reid poll pegged Bloc support at just 34 per cent, with the NDP in second place, at 24 per cent. Were those numbers to show up on election day, Mr. Duceppe could bid farewell to any ruminations about becoming Quebec premier, not to mention having to worry about keeping his current job.
Whatever the numbers, the Bloc's worry is clear. There is no obvious line of anti-federalist attack on the NDP. For the Tories, it's as easy as Mr. Duceppe repeating often and loudly that they are outside the "Quebec consensus" on social issues. For the Liberals, the standard accusation of deep love for central government will do. For the NDP … well, it's not so simple, particularly with as nimble a political tap-dancer as Mr. Layton. The NDP's policies appeal to the Quebec consensus (or at least that leftist portion of it that Mr. Duceppe mistakenly believes represents the entire province). And Mr. Layton's willingness to embrace the virtues of a minimalist central government (at least when it comes to Quebec) also deprives Mr. Duceppe of an easy target.
If left-leaning Quebeckers with only a moderate attachment to separatism park their votes with the NDP, it will be the Bloc that will have to contend with vote splitting in Quebec, for once.
The result is the obscure sparring Tuesday night over Bill 101, a clear attempt by Mr. Duceppe to pin down Mr. Layton in advance of Wednesday night's French-language debate. Expect to see more, much more, of Mr. Duceppe interrogating Mr. Layton.