When Thomas Mulcair was last squarely in the public eye, he was retreating into the background after a painful campaign.
Monday, he starts another tough campaign. This time, instead of seeking to form a government, he will be campaigning to keep his job as NDP leader.
That is, if he wants it, and all indications are that he does.
Yes, this is the NDP, the party which has no history of eating its leaders.
But Mulcair was going to make this a different NDP. No more moral victories, no more conscience of Parliament. He was chosen to helm the party in 2012 because he was supposed to win, to take the next step after Jack Layton lifted the party to the top of the stairwell with the door of power within reach.
Instead, he stumbled backward down those stairs and now it would be somewhat ironic if he had in fact remodelled the party to the point that it began acting like the other two more traditional parties, where defeat is placed on the shoulders of the leader.
Starting with a Monday press conference, then a caucus retreat and culminating in the party convention in Edmonton in April where his leadership is subject to review, Mulcair essentially has to reapply for the job.
There is much more internal discontent with his leadership and the party’s electoral performance than party officials have acknowledged.
Conversations with New Democrats in the past week reveal that there is no organized opposition to Mulcair. No one appears to be building a nascent leadership team. But some current and former MPs are being courted by labour and progressives who would like to see change at the top.
Mulcair will have to begin by convincing caucus he is aware of the mistakes made in the campaign, when the party went from official opposition, to leading in national polls at the outset to third-place party by the end of the campaign. It went from 103 seats in 2011 to 44 in 2015 and again holds its traditional perch as the country’s third party.
He will have to show he can work as a team player, some said. Others suggest he must lose the tendency to double down when cornered, whether it was a vow to balance the budget in his first year as prime minister or his contention, in selling Senate abolition, that he had never met a senator doing valuable parliamentary work.
He must acknowledge the rebuild in front of the party, he must prove he can bring progressives back into the NDP fold and he has to show he has a plan to become the true progressive option both in the Commons and in the country.
This is a man who has been dubbed the greatest opposition leader in generations, a man many thought had the gravitas, the political skills and the intelligence to become a prime minister.
But now, if he takes support for granted on the way to Edmonton, he will stumble and he will not win the backing of the party, those who spoke to the Star say.
The fact that no one would go on the record – and some went out their way to praise some facets of his leadership – show there is certainly no incipient revolt.
Mulcair largely has the support of his Quebec caucus and none of the names being bandied about as future leaders has the Quebec credibility of the current leader.
MPs Nathan Cullen and Peter Julian and former MP Megan Leslie are all lying low, anyway.
There may be a sense Mulcair is on probation, but no one is undermining him.
There will be plenty of blame to spread around when a post-mortem is completed later this winter.
There are some who feel the effort to soften the Mulcair image actually sapped him of his authenticity.
“Tom did a lot of great things in the campaign, but there were a lot of mistakes made during the campaign,” said one MP who survived last October. “I’m not blaming Tom. Yet.”
Since the Ed Broadbent era, every NDP leader has departed on his or her own terms.
Audrey McLaughlin resigned after one futile campaign in which the NDP lost official party status.
Her successor, Alexa McDonough, went to the well twice, regaining party status but little else, completing one of the worst decades in the party’s history.
Jack Layton finally made the long-awaited breakthrough for the party on his fourth attempt.
Mulcair’s not getting four tries. He will have to work to ensure he gets a do-over in 2019.
Tim Harper is a national affairs writer. His column appears Monday, Wednesday and Friday.
Copyright 2016 – Torstar Syndication Services