On the afternoon of the recent Quebec provincial election, Michael Ignatieff phoned Premier Jean Charest to wish him luck. This was two days before Mr. Ignatieff would be acclaimed to the helm of the Liberal Party of Canada, but he was already paving the way for the tough job awaiting him in Quebec, where the federal Liberal Party has completely lost its clout since Jean Chrétien's departure.
An alliance with Mr. Charest's Liberals would be a huge asset. The provincial Liberals are back in power; they have money and an extensive network of seasoned organizers. Mr. Ignatieff will try to take advantage of the feelings that have hardened between Mr. Charest and Prime Minister Stephen Harper to build bridges with his provincial "cousins."
This is easier said than done, though. As Mr. Harper bitterly experienced during the last federal campaign, Mr. Charest is an unreliable ally, at best. He is certain to greet the new federal Liberal leader with a long list of demands, some of which will be unacceptable to even the most open-minded federal politician. Mr. Ignatieff pioneered the recognition of Quebec as a "nation," but there's not much more he can yield to Quebec's nationalists without alienating his base in the rest of Canada.
For the federal Liberals, Mr. Ignatieff's leadership couldn't have come too soon. By backing away from the foolish coalition plan, he has rescued his party (and the country too) from a disastrous and terribly divisive adventure.
As NDP leader Jack Layton told his caucus (albeit in more polite terms), Mr. Dion fell into a trap set by the NDP and the Bloc Québécois for the simple, pathetic reason that he desperately wanted to be prime minister ... at least for a few months.
The deal is great for the NDP, which would obtain, through the back door, the power it has never been able to get from the electorate.
The deal is also good for the Bloc, because it would widen the gap between Quebec and the rest of Canada, as illustrated by last week's polls that showed the idea of a coalition was deeply unpopular everywhere except Quebec.
But for the Liberals the coalition plan was, and is, incredibly stupid. First of all, why would any opposition party rush to deal with a financial crisis instead of leaving the government with the mess?
The coalition would have also eliminated for good whatever is left of the Liberal Party in the West, which still hasn't forgiven Pierre Trudeau's national energy program. The central-Canada-led coalition would have robbed the West of its democratic election victory (the Tories being the major Western party) - a power grab that would have echoed the NEP, which in Western eyes robbed Alberta of revenues from its natural resources.
Mr. Ignatieff was always a reluctant supporter of the coalition. Upon being made leader, he acted wisely: While keeping the deal in his back pocket to apply pressure on the Harper government, he let it be known he would be open to talks about the January budget. Mr. Harper, who now realizes what his arrogance could cost him, promptly seized the olive branch. On Friday the two men had what their spokespeople called a "cordial" meeting. Unless Mr. Harper is bent on self-destruction, the January budget will be a reasonable plan that the opposition will be able to vote for.
In any case, the Liberals have no interest in returning to the polls in the near future. Mr. Ignatieff needs time to rebuild his party in the West and in Quebec.
My guess is that, despite many obstacles, the rebuilding will be easier in Quebec, if only because the Liberal Party, basically extinct in the West, still has relatively strong roots here.
Furthermore, Mr. Ignatieff already has a promising base in the province, as he was the choice of a large majority of Quebec delegates in the 2006 leadership convention.