The only thing worse than being talked about, Oscar Wilde once said, is not being talked about.
I’m not sure federal NDP stalwarts would agree. They wouldn’t mind if their leader, Jagmeet Singh, wasn’t talked about for a while, I’m sure. Every time he is, it doesn’t seem to reflect well on him.
The seatless Mr. Singh is facing a critical by-election test in the riding of Burnaby South. It’s his big chance to get into the House of Commons and go mano-a-mano with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Opposition Leader Andrew Scheer. He officially opened his campaign office on Sunday. However, the event was overshadowed by the beleaguered leader’s latest blunder.
Appearing on CTV’s Question Period with host Evan Solomon taped on the weekend, Mr. Singh was asked about the continuing dispute between Canada and China. In particular, Mr. Solomon wanted to know what Mr. Singh thought of China’s ambassador to Canada claiming “white supremacy” was behind the arrest and detention of Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou. It was a bizarre allegation heard ‘round the world, and one that prompted myriad articles and blistering editorials.
If Mr. Singh were prime minister, Mr. Solomon wanted to know, what would his response to the ambassador’s claim have been?
The federal NDP Leader didn’t seem to have any idea what Mr. Solomon was talking about. “Who accused who of white supremacy?” he asked.
You could see Mr. Solomon’s face drop.
Mr. Singh eventually gave a mostly benign, bland statement on the continuing confab with China, repeating talking points about respecting the rule of law. It was far from the kind of tough, no-nonsense answer that might have distinguished him, made him look like a real leader and ready for prime time.
There are defenders of Mr. Singh now suggesting he didn’t hear the original question. I’m not buying it. Mr. Solomon couldn’t have been clearer. The context for the question had been well defined: they had been talking about the dispute with China. Mr. Singh didn’t say: “Excuse me, I couldn’t hear that … can you repeat the question?” No, I think he was just caught embarrassingly uninformed, possibly because he’s spending all his time door-knocking in a federal riding to which he is foreign.
And that’s what many people inside the NDP likely believe as well.
Anyway you spin it, it was another disastrous episode in his troubled tenure as leader. And another sign that his ascension to the job was a gigantic mistake. Mr. Singh seems no more ready to lead a federal political party in Canada than I am. The question that many people inside the party are asking now is: What can be done about it?
The answer will almost certainly depend on what happens on Feb. 25, the date of the by-election. Mr. Singh has to win. If he doesn’t, how he remains in the job seems impossible, despite his insistence that he plans to do just that. The good news is there is believed to be polling results on their way that offer encouraging signs about his chances. The party has all its top people on the ground and has recruited scads of volunteers.
Still, what if he falls short?
There are lots of discussions going on behind the scenes in the party about just that. Scenarios are being sketched out against a pretty black-and-white backdrop; the leader is only accountable to the party convention – not to anyone else. In other words, there is no easy mechanism to get rid of Mr. Singh if he’s determined to stay.
That said, his federal caucus could make it virtually impossible for him to hang around by having a vote on his future. In the event of a loss by Mr. Singh in Burnaby South, I wouldn’t be surprised if the result of a caucus vote on his leadership would be decisively against him remaining. While caucus may not have any power to get rid of him, it has plenty of influence.
It’s hard to imagine Mr. Singh hanging on and trying to fight a federal election when his caucus has made the case against him staying as leader.
I sympathize with Mr. Singh, who seems like a smart, likeable, accomplished person. Unfortunately, federal politics is a tough, tough racket and he’s receiving entry level training in a demanding, unforgiving position, in full public view. And it’s often been difficult to watch.
He now faces the biggest test of his life. He must know just how much is at stake.