Over the past six years, Jack Layton’s star has risen in tandem with that of Stephen Harper. Now, they may be on parallel downward courses.
While the Conservative leader was uniting the right and leading his party to power, Layton was putting the NDP back on the federal map.
On his watch, the New Democrats almost tripled their seats in the House of Commons, securing a toehold in Quebec and Newfoundland in the process.
In 2005, the party co-wrote a federal budget with the then-ruling Liberals. Last December, the NDP came within an inch of participating in a coalition government.
But what looks like steady progress is also a string of not-so-near misses.
Three elections into Layton’s tenure, the NDP remains the smallest parliamentary group in the House of Commons.
It has consistently failed to thrive and make a dent in the glass ceiling that is keeping it below 20 per cent in popular support. It is nowhere near achieving its dream of overtaking the Liberals.
As a result, the Conservatives who are wondering whether they have peaked under their current leader are not alone; some New Democrats are asking themselves the same question.
Now that the dust has settled on the coalition, the NDP leader has emerged as the main casualty of the episode.
Left at the altar by Michael Ignatieff, Layton’s fate has inspired more popular relief than sympathy.
To make matters worse, Layton has ended up with the political bills of the aborted ceremony.
While the Liberals have basked in public approval for their decision to walk away from the coalition, Layton has borne the brunt of the backlash over the Bloc Quebecois’s association with the opposition scheme.
A Nanos poll done in the immediate aftermath of the budget found respondents giving Layton a failing grade for his performance in handling the budget in every region of the country except Quebec.
His worst score (-21) was registered in western Canada, the region where the coalition found the least support. By comparison, Harper (+25) and Ignatieff (+19) enjoyed positive ratings in the Prairies and British Columbia.
According to the same poll, Layton’s coattails are, at best, inexistent outside Quebec and in that province, they don’t seem sturdy enough to stop the NDP from slipping back into oblivion.
Since the February Nanos poll, more has become known about the Conservative budget and the concessions the Liberals accepted as part of the package they agreed to support. But that has so far not improved NDP fortunes.
Recently, a Toronto Star/La Presse poll gave the Liberals a double-digit lead on the Conservatives in Ontario, 30 points ahead of the NDP.
Layton is also losing support to Ignatieff in Quebec. In that province, Nanos has the NDP at seven per cent, or about half of its 14 per cent October election score.
And while other polls have reported better showings for the New Democrats, they all do show that Ignatieff leads the only party whose fortunes have improved substantially in Quebec over the first trimester of the year.
A sign of the changing times, would-be Liberal candidates are falling over themselves for the chance to take on Thomas Mulcair in the next election.
Six months ago, the party had a hard time finding a sacrificial lamb to put up against Layton’s sole Quebec MP, but now Outremont sits near the top of the list of ridings the Liberals hope to take back at the first opportunity.
Chantal Hebert writes for The Toronto Star Syndicate.