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What are the chances of a federal election in 2011? Add to ...

Parliamentarians are staggering through the final days of the fall session - and staggering home from a seemingly endless succession of Christmas parties - as the House prepares to rise this week for its winter break. And then, and then …

If conventional wisdom, that most dubious of sources, is to be believed, the 40th Parliament is not long for this world. Shortly after it resumes in February, goes the reasoning, the Conservatives will bring down a budget that no opposition party can support, forcing an election.

But for that to happen, all four party leaders have to want, or at least be prepared, to fight an election. And that requires some serious cogitation over some pretty important questions.

For Stephen Harper: Do I really want an election?

As it stands right now, the Conservatives would comfortably win re-election if one were held today. But a close look at the ridings in the Toronto area shows that a majority is probably out of reach.

The Liberals currently hold 26 seats in the region. As a rough yardstick, winning a riding while garnering only 45 per cent or so of the vote leaves an MP vulnerable. There are 10 such Liberal ridings in the Greater Toronto Area. At current levels of support, the Tories should be able to pick off some but not all of them. There are a few seats up for grabs in Atlantic Canada and in Greater Vancouver, for a national total of about 20 possible gains, but in Quebec and elsewhere there are seats at risk. So winning the 12 additional seats needed to form a majority government is an odds-against proposition.

What's the use of having an election that delivers the same result? If Mr. Harper can craft a budget that defers the worst of the spending cuts for a later day or agree to a more generous harmonized sales tax agreement with Quebec, the Liberals or Bloc Québécois might be mollified, leaving the government safe for another year. Mr. Harper insists he wants to continue governing. If he's serious, there might be ways.

For Michael Ignatieff: How much longer do I want this to go on?

A year ago, Angus Reid put the Liberal Leader's support at a lousy 29 per cent. So he changed his senior staff, pounded the government over prorogation, the census, fighter jets and much else besides, and devoted an exhausting summer to a countrywide bus tour. And what did it get him? Angus Reid has him at 26 per cent.

Let's go back to that Greater Toronto map. The Conservatives hold 12 seats adjacent to or close to the seats the Liberals now hold. To get anywhere near the 40 or so seats the Liberals would need to win to form a weak minority government, most of those blue ridings will have to turn red. But only two of them are currently vulnerable.

To win an election, the Liberals will need a game-changer: a fundamental shift in voter attitudes that throws dozens of currently safe Tory ridings into play. Game-changers are rare.

So should the Liberals find a way to support the next budget and hope the situation improves, or roll the dice and try to bring the government down? The answer hinges on how much longer Mr. Ignatieff wants to carry on as Leader of the Official Opposition, a job that comes with a nice house, but little else to recommend it.

For Jack Layton: Is this still fun?

The NDP Leader remains popular with voters and his caucus. But he has been leader almost eight years, fought three elections, and battled prostate cancer this year. If the government does survive the budget, he'll need to give some thought to whether he wants to carry on.

For Gilles Duceppe: Here or up the road?

The leader of the provincial Parti Québécois, Pauline Marois, is unpopular, and Mr. Duceppe has flirted before with the idea of switching to provincial politics, though the PQ's victory in a November by-election might make that more difficult. If the Bloc Québécois Leader does decide to try for Ms. Marois's job, all political bets are off. We'll need a new conventional wisdom. It could take hours.

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Follow on Twitter: @JohnIbbitson


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