Insolent and over-confident, Michael Ignatieff made an unpromising start in his new job as Liberal leader. In his first series of interviews, he argued that Stephen Harper is alone responsible for creating a "parliamentary crisis" and for "dividing the country," two highly dubious and self-serving propositions. The prime minister's duty, Ignatieff said, is to bring forth a budget in January that will satisfy parliament and stimulate the economy. Ignatieff said that he, Ignatieff, will decide whether Harper has done the job properly.
And if Harper fails to satisfy him? Then Ignatieff will topple the government by using the Liberal-NDP-Bloc Québécois agreement that was forged by his discarded predecessor, Stéphane Dion.
This was a wondrous display of nerve, coming from a politician who has been in parliament since only 2006, an untested leader of a woebegone party that gave, only this October, its worst performance in memory. Nevertheless, Ignatieff issued his stern warning again and again on TV and radio, giving all of us a chance to think about what he was saying. The more he repeated his ultimatum, the more it sounded like pure fantasy.
Ignatieff wielded that three-party threat like a club, but it's much less formidable than he tries to make it sound. For one thing, he doesn't believe in it for a minute, almost certainly never did, and betrays his real feelings every time he refers to it. Probably he signed the deal with reluctance, in the spirit of a would-be leader who finds it necessary to get in line behind his potential followers. Moreover, the citizens whom the three parties propose to save from the scourge of Harperism have so far shown little affection for the coalition. Several polls suggested that the public dislikes that idea so much that an election occurring last week would have given Harper a majority. (When this point was made to Ignatieff by Robertson on CTV, he quickly ducked behind a cloud of boilerplate rhetoric.)
In this initial display of his ability to lead, Ignatieff sounded suspiciously like a smug, old-fashioned Liberal expressing his belief in his party's inherent right to rule.
Even so, it's not hard to imagine Ignatieff as a successful leader. Behind that armoured personality there's an interesting and exceptional man -- and perhaps a prime minister. True, there's something crazy about choosing a leader who has rarely taken part in practical politics and has spent most of his adult life in Britain or the United States as a journalist, novelist and professor. Admittedly, he has seldom shown more than a cursory interest in economics, a subject that will be at the top of the agenda for a long time to come.
Nevertheless, he may well develop into what his party needs most, a politician who inspires respect and confidence. The Liberals are desperate for a leader who will recruit first-class citizens as candidates, persuade business and professional people to take him seriously, learn enough about the health services to know what Ottawa can (and can't) do to improve them, show enough confidence and humility to listen to those who know better, and (this alone would set him apart) trust his cabinet ministers to do their jobs without his close supervision.
He has a quality that he shares with no other federal politician or provincial premier: He's articulate, all on his own, without speech writers. The supple imagination demonstrated in his books suggests that he could use language as the servant of policy. His books also demonstrate that he's a man of large ambition and broad perception -- not so much the books on human rights as The Russian Album, a beautiful evocation of Russian history and his own family's part in it, and his biography of that brilliant political thinker, Isaiah Berlin.
In Canada, most of our politicians talk like press releases, usually because their speeches are written by the same people who write press releases. Their idea of fine prose is the style customary in royal commission reports, which they or their speech writers try to emulate on important occasions. If Ignatieff chooses to deploy his talent he will be the most articulate Canadian public figure of his era. He may even help his fellow citizens come to a fresh understanding of Canada's purpose.
If he can free himself from the worn clichés of the Liberals and learn to be himself in public, he may well be the leader his party needs. If that happens, Canada in the next election will have two major parties led by competent and plausible leaders. A happy thought.