All Michael Ignatieff has really wanted since Monday is a fig leaf to justify his continued support of the minority Conservative government.
That minimalist quest is the only possible rationale for the absence of clarity of his original position, a feature whose main (and only) merit has been to give the Liberal leader the latitude to clutch at whatever straw may come his way, courtesy of the prime minister.
Only the modesty of Ignatieff’s immediate ambitions can account for the fact that he did not risk getting a quick no for an answer in the Commons by forgoing the chance to put his questions to the government on Monday; climbed down from his pre-election perch even before he met with Harper; and spent Tuesday closeted with aides and with the prime minister.
For if the point of the exercise has been to rally Canadians around a cause worth fighting a summer election over, then it amounts to a communications disaster, rivalled only by Stephane Dion’s disastrous televised address to the nation last December.
On the election front, the Liberal leader sent consistently mixed and, at times, contradictory signals to his caucus, his opponents and the country since Monday.
Early that morning, Ignatieff told his MPs they could put away their election sabres for the summer. But an hour later, he was on television threatening to topple the government over Friday’s supplementary estimates unless his concerns were addressed in four areas.
In subsequent interviews that same day, he strenuously denied having ever put an ultimatum to the government. For the record, the dictionary definition of ultimatum is: “a statement that expresses or implies the threat of serious penalties if the terms are not accepted.”
Through it all, it has become increasingly obvious that Ignatieff had no substantive Plan B in the event of a communications breakdown with Harper or, at least, that an immediate election campaign is really not his endgame.
On that particular score, he is like a person who would have initiated a round of musical chairs without staking out a seat for himself.
None of the four questions he put to the government Monday leads to a compelling campaign narrative.
A summer election would hardly provide definitive answers as to how a future government would wrestle the mounting deficit at some unspecified time down the road. Given the limited timeline of a minority government, Ignatieff’s views on that issue are at least as salient as Harper’s.
The isotope crisis cannot possibly be resolved at the ballot box and what amounts to an acceptable level of stimulus spending at this stage of the recession is very much in the eye of the beholder.
As for a more evenly accessible employment insurance regime, Ignatieff’s chosen battle-horse since last month’s Vancouver leadership convention, he used his Monday news conference to take his demand of a 360-hour threshold to qualify for EI benefits off the table and failed to replace it with anything other than generalities.
Given all that, and given Canadians’ deep opposition to a summer election, the best outcome for Ignatieff is an understanding with the prime minister.
As it happens, it is also the best possible outcome for Harper.
Both would take huge risks in a summer campaign and both stand to earn credit for avoiding one.
This is a rare case where a win for the leader of the official Opposition also stands to be a win for the prime minister.
Chantal Hebert writes for The Toronto Star Syndicate.