In an ideal world for the NDP, Jack Layton would lead the party in the next election, whenever it does come.
Layton has moved the party forward in every campaign that he has led.
Over his seven years as leader, the NDP has broken new ground in Alberta, Quebec and Newfoundland.
Under Paul Martin’s Liberal government, the NDP had a unique hand in crafting a budget.
In this Parliament, Layton came closer to playing a direct role in running the country than any NDP leader before him. Depending on the results, a repeat opportunity to strike an alliance or even another coalition pact with the Liberals could be around the corner of the next campaign.
Given his personal popularity, Layton is more likely to bring the NDP to a solid finish in the next election than any potential successor. Every rookie leader, regardless of his or her talent, faces a steep learning curve.
On that score, one only needs to think back to Gilles Duceppe’s rocky 1997 campaign or Stephen Harper’s uneven 2004 election performance.
At a time when polls suggest the NDP’s electoral prospects are uncertain, Layton is even more indispensable. He has become by far the party’s top electoral asset.
Polls suggest such a game-changer could be difficult to achieve in a spring election. But it could also be as good as it gets for the NDP leader and his caucus.
As New Democrats ponder their options in the lead-up to the March 22nd federal budget, it seems their decision might come down to picking the least bad of two unpalatable scenarios.
They can plunge in an uncertain spring election with Layton at the helm or risk going into a campaign in a year or more under an untested leader.
On Friday, Layton underwent surgery for a fractured hip.
At a special caucus meeting last week, he appraised his MPs of his latest health complications.
He assured them he would be back in the Commons in time for the budget, and would be ready, if need be, to lead the party in a spring election.
The implication is that Layton’s health will not be a factor in deciding how the NDP deals with the budget.
If the NDP did support the Conservative’s next fiscal plan, there would probably not be an election until at least this time next year as the fall political calendar is already replete with provincial campaigns.
But Layton’s uncertain health could be a compelling reason to come down on the side of an election this spring rather than a motive for postponing it to sometime next year.
That’s because it is increasingly hard to take it for granted that he should or would be around to lead the NDP in a campaign in 12 to 18 months.
There is no one on Parliament Hill who is not aware of the toll the combination of a fight against prostate cancer and a heavy political load has taken on the NDP leader.
If there is not an election this spring, the next 12 months will be at least as intense as the past year has been. Minority parliaments operate very much like a treadmill.
There is still an outside chance that the fate of the minority Parliament will be taken out of NDP hands. For months Quebec and Ottawa have been negotiating a package to compensate the province retroactively for having harmonized its provincial sales tax regimen with the HST.
If the two governments came to an agreement in time for the budget, the Bloc Québécois would have no choice but to support it. The spring election scenario would be moot but growing concerns over Layton’s health would endure.
A word in closing about my late brother-in-arms James Travers: Until we started writing on alternate days a bit more than 11 years ago the Star had never had a team of national columnists working out of Parliament Hill.
We were not naturally predisposed to be joined at the hip. Our journalistic backgrounds were strikingly different. So was our sense of Canada and how it worked best.
One of Jim’s first columns in September 1999 dealt with the state of Jean Chrétien’s governance midway through his second mandate. The next day, my column focused on Paul Martin’s leadership ambitions. It was a coincidence. That our columns often complemented each other was a gift we prized and, with time, became able to take for granted. Canada often works that way.
The last time we spoke we talked of what would have been our fifth federal election as column-mates. His voice during what could be a watershed election for the country will be sorely missed and mine will be shakier for its absence.