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Lack of a leadership rival boosts Mulcair’s odds of survival

Nathan Cullen is the guy who could have led the charge. He was potentially the biggest threat to Tom Mulcair staying in place as the leader of the New Democratic Party.

Mr. Cullen is a year younger than Justin Trudeau and he is one of his party's – it has a few – modern men. He's witty and he's got pop. The eyes beam, the step is eager. Eleven years in the House of Commons have given the British Columbian depth, particularly on economic and green issues.

The review of Mr. Mulcair's leadership is in early April in Edmonton. He probably needs about 75 per cent support to survive. That's not easy when you have just run a campaign in which the party dropped more seats than in any other election in its history.

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Those intent on toppling Mr. Mulcair need a tribune. Many hoped that it would be Mr. Cullen, that he would send a signal of some kind. But they can forget that. As he said, rather bluntly, "I'm in favour of Tom staying on."

What if, he was asked, the review vote goes against the leader and there is a leadership race to follow. "Not interested," he said. "And no, I'm not being coy."

He doesn't feel it in his gut. Although he ran a spirited campaign for the leadership in 2012, he finds the ambition lacking now. "I didn't get into politics with the core belief that I was designed to lead the party." It's fine, he explained, "if you're an egomaniac and you just love the sound of your voice. But if you're not built that way, the cost is significant."

His position will be discouraging for those who want change. Other potential leadership aspirants are lying low. Megan Leslie, who lost her Nova Scotia seat, has told colleagues that she is not going to challenge the leader. Peter Julian is ambitious but is intent on remaining loyal. Alexandre Boulerice, the Quebecker who has thunderous power as a Commons inquisitor, went public in the election campaign against Mr. Mulcair's position allowing women to wear the niqab at citizenship ceremonies. He is a future star, but is unlikely to make a move against a fellow Quebecker at this time.

An Ontario MPP, Cheri Di-Novo, came out last week with a call for Mr. Mulcair to step down. But it caused not a ripple. It is instructive as well that the party's best organizers aren't very active in preparing for the review vote.

It's a big risk for someone to come out in open opposition to the leader. It can open deep fissures in the party. The perpetrator gets tarred with the reputation of a renegade, a most noteworthy example being that of Dalton Camp, who led the charge against John Diefenbaker's Conservative leadership in the 1960s.

But Mr. Cullen could have stayed silent, tipping his hand neither way. That would still have sent a signal. So would a statement that he would be interested in the leadership if it became open. He did leave the door open a crack on that point, saying a change of mind is not out of the question.

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The apparent lack of enthusiasm for replacing Mr. Mulcair is in keeping with party tradition. New Democrats like to give their leaders time. Jack Layton's breakthrough in the 2011 election was his fourth campaign as leader. Early in that campaign, the party's support was in the mid-teens. Then came the miracle surge.

Another reason for the inactivity is the fact that the leadership prize has been stripped of some of its value now that the party has returned to its customary third-rank position.

Of consequence as well is that despite what happened in the campaign, party members respect the strengths of Mr. Mulcair. Mr. Cullen, who would have liked to have seen a bolder campaign, is among that number.

He is disappointed, as are many. But disappointment isn't enough to take down a leader. It takes despair, and at the moment the despair isn't there.

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About the Author
Public affairs columnist

Lawrence Martin is an Ottawa-based public affairs columnist and the author of ten books, including six national best sellers. More


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