Tories position byelections as test of Ignatieff’s leadership

Liberals expect to be shut out of four federal byelections Monday and their rivals are already positioning the results as a rejection of Michael Ignatieff’s shaky leadership.

OTTAWA — Liberals expect to be shut out of four federal byelections Monday and their rivals are already positioning the results as a rejection of Michael Ignatieff’s shaky leadership.

The contests will most likely amount to a confirmation of the status quo, with the Bloc Quebecois hanging on to two ridings in Quebec, New Democrats holding on to another in British Columbia and the Tories reclaiming a Nova Scotia riding that had been a longtime stronghold until Bill Casey, a former Conservative MP, captured it as an independent in 2008.

But all four races are sufficiently tight that they could conceivably produce upset victories for the Conservatives and the NDP.

In many respects, the more interesting battles are over second place, with both the Tories and NDP hoping that strong — if not winning — finishes will give them that most precious of political commodities: momentum.

By contrast, the Liberals don’t appear to be factors in any of the races. They are expected to do no better than a distant third.

None of the ridings has ever been prime Liberal turf. But rarely has the once-mighty, self-described natural governing party seemed so thoroughly out of contention.

“If you’re the official Opposition, I think you’d be expected to do well in byelections in the midst of a global economic downturn,” Conservative party spokesman Fred DeLorey said Sunday.

“I think it says something about leadership.”

DeLorey said the Tories expect to be shut out themselves, pointing out that byelections rarely reward the governing party. But that message is almost certainly more an exercise in lowering expectations than a realistic prediction.

The Tories are well-positioned to win one contest and come close in two others. Ditto for the NDP.

For their part, New Democrats are hoping the byelections will produce a new political dynamic in Quebec in which the NDP are seen as the federalist alternative to the separatist Bloc on the island of Montreal and the Tories are seen as the alternative outside Montreal. Under this scenario, the Liberals would be squeezed out entirely.

“We used to finish behind the Marijuana Party (in Quebec),” NDP Leader Jack Layton noted last week.

“But we’re now real players, so much so the Bloc’s even attacking us. Holy mackerel. We must be doing something right.”

Anne McLellan, former Liberal cabinet minister and co-chair of the party’s national election readiness team, acknowledged the Liberal goal in the byelections is modest: to improve on the meagre share of the vote they won in each riding in 2008 under the leadership of the unpopular Stephane Dion.

But she said rival parties shouldn’t interpret that as throwing in the towel.

“We’re in the process of I think rebuilding our party, rebuilding the party finances, the party structure, the people around the leader in his office,” she said in an interview.

“There’s no point, you know, in gilding the lily. We have work to do and we will do that work. I think the Conservatives and New Democrats can say what they want but they probably underestimate the Liberal party and the people in it if they count us out in terms of the longer term.”

The byelections come at a particularly bad juncture for Ignatieff who is in the process of shaking up his inner circle after a rocky couple of months.

Liberal fortunes and Ignatieff’s popularity have plunged since early September, when the leader declared his intention to defeat the minority Conservative government at the earliest opportunity. Ignatieff has had to back off that threat in the wake of series of missteps that culminated in the spectacular resignation of his Quebec lieutenant, Denis Coderre, who criticized the leader’s reliance on a Toronto-centric inner circle.

Of the four ridings up for grabs Monday, the Liberals did best in the east-end Montreal riding of Hochelaga during the 2008 general election, coming a distant second behind the Bloc.

This time, however, it’s the NDP’s Jean-Claude Rocheleau who’s giving the Bloc’s Daniel Paille, a former Parti Quebecois cabinet minister, a run for his money.

Layton said Rocheleau is winning the sign war in the riding and the last time he saw that phenomenon — in Outremont during a 2007 byelection —the NDP won.