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Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff listens to a question during a news conference in Ottawa this week. (CHRIS WATTIE)
Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff listens to a question during a news conference in Ottawa this week. (CHRIS WATTIE)


Shouldn't this man be smiling? Add to ...

Michael Ignatieff got a taste this week of what it must have been like to be Stéphane Dion.

Stuck between supporting the Conservative government and triggering an election nobody wants, the Liberal Leader went down the middle of the road. He presented the Prime Minister with a series of demands to be met in return for his support - demands the New Democrats and Bloc Québécois dismissed as capitulation, and the Tories declared a naked grab for power.

In the end, Mr. Ignatieff managed to wrench a few concessions from Stephen Harper to keep his party and his critics in check. But clearly the Catch-22 that Mr. Dion faced during his two years on the job isn't about to go away.

"The beginning of the week was sloppy," one senior Liberal admits off the record.

Since becoming leader six months ago, Mr. Ignatieff has strived to avoid being responsible for deciding the fate of the government. An early election is so unpopular he would much prefer to have the NDP and Bloc take the heat for pulling the trigger.

In fact, many in his party believe that this week's psycho-drama could have been prevented had they seized a golden opportunity presented recently by NDP Leader Jack Layton. Three weeks ago, he declared that his party had no intention of trying to bring down the government. Mr. Ignatieff could have said then that he would put forward a no-confidence motion, thus forcing the NDP to save Mr. Harper.

Pollster Peter Donolo says that propping up the PM is a problem because it doesn't allow Mr. Ignatieff to separate himself from the Conservatives.

"The issue is whether he looked like he was doing something in the national interest, or whether he looked like he buckled in front of the government," says the former communications director for prime minister Jean Chrétien.

"I honestly don't know, but I think the Liberals are still in this bind which, in essence, makes them a silent partner to the government."

He thinks that Mr. Ignatieff should have capitalized on his advantage in the polls and forced a vote. But not all Liberals are so gung-ho. A good chunk of the caucus - some say 50 per cent - is ready to go, but the organizers and strategists expected to help the party win new seats want more time to prepare.

Forced to seek a balance, Mr. Ignatieff went after concessions - changes to employment insurance, more information about the deficit and stimulus spending, and a plan to deal with the medical-isotope shortage - designed to show a tough side to hawks and a co-operative side to those keen to get things done.

University of Alberta political scientist Steve Patten says that, to an outsider, this approach seems sincere. "I thought his basic performance on the CBC about why he was pushing the government - but why he would not want an election - looked very calm, rational and committed to making the system work."

But those "who follow the situation more closely," he adds, "were seeing somebody who might have been making a strategic move without enough careful thought."

According to Mr. Patten, Mr. Harper wound up with a potential advantage on a few issues.

For example, by agreeing to a joint study on employment insurance, the Liberals may allow the Tories to take the credit for any reforms that result. And because his party is part of the process, Mr. Ignatieff won't be able to criticize even though "it's an issue that opposition parties should have some advantage on," Mr. Patten says.

He says Canadians realize that Mr. Ignatieff faced a Hobson's choice and had no real alternative, but that may not help him in the long run. "It's a tough line to walk and, unfortunately, if Parliament continues such an adversarial and combative character, this is going to happen over and over again."

Liberals are now gambling that their leader's message of co-operation - and, they hope, maturity - is getting through to a public tired of parliamentary gamesmanship. They believe that his private meetings with Mr. Harper this week helped to raise his stature and that his refusal to wilt under pressure from a PM who goes for the jugular will yield points Mr. Dion could never score.

If there's an image they would like to endure, it's of Mr. Ignatieff emerging from the Prime Minister's office across from Parliament Hill as if he owned the joint.

"The end of the week was better," the senior Grit says, calling his leader "the adult in the room … At the end of the day, Ignatieff looked like a guy walking out of Langevin Block who could spend a lot more days walking out of the Langevin Block."

Of course, Mr. Ignatieff could have had an even better reason for seeming so confident. Party insiders point out that his escape from the Dion dilemma may lie in an added concession he won from Mr. Harper: the opportunity to hold a no-confidence motion in the fall rather than many weeks later.

They assume that, having blinked again this week, they will have no choice but to vote against the government the next chance they get. When that happens, their sharp-tongued critics in the Bloc and NDP really will find that the shoe is on the other foot.

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