National Column: Mulcair’s irrational road to nowhere

by Chantal Hébert

By the time he stood at the podium to address the NDP convention Sunday morning, Thomas Mulcair must have known he was in deep and likely irreversible trouble.

It took little more than a minimum of political acumen to pick up the negative signals that preceded the vote on whether to seek a new leader. Mulcair did not lack for antennae in the corridors of the convention.

Upon arrival in Edmonton on Thursday, a longtime NDP insider told me Mulcair could hope at best to win the vote with 55 per cent. The support of such a slim majority of delegates would have left him well short of the mark he needed to reach to have the legitimacy to stay at the
helm. Presumably, the outgoing leader had access to the same sobering assessments of his prospects.

If he ever had any illusions that the 70 per cent-plus confidence vote he was seeking was in the bag, he had to have lost them some time before he finally faced the music on Sunday.

As the convention progressed, Mulcair and his team must have noted that things were taking a turn for the worse. The momentum for a leadership campaign grew with every passing hour, with fewer and fewer New Democrats willing to challenge the case for replacing the leader.

A politician as seasoned as Mulcair wouldn’t have thought a single speech would turn the tide or that the meandering address he was about to deliver was up to such a Herculean task.

It is even harder to imagine his inner circle did not at least present him with options that would have spared him a public humiliation and, possibly, left him with a shot at keeping his job.

In the weeks, days and hours leading up to the vote, Mulcair was still in control of his destiny.

On the way to the podium, he still had course-altering alternatives at his disposal.

As late as last week he could have signalled his intention to oversee a 24-month transition to a successor. In the summer of 2002, then-prime minister Jean ChrÈtien did just that, setting a date for his retirement more than a year before his actual departure rather than fend off an attempt to drive him out at a Liberal national convention. That paved the way to a dignified exit.

Alternatively, there was a middle ground between losing the vote and stepping down to pre-empt it.

Even as late as Sunday morning, Mulcair could have regained control of the agenda by telling delegates he had resolved to ask the party to organize a leadership convention and planned to run for his own job.

After all, even in the best-case scenario, a decent score on the weekend would have signalled only the beginning of another campaign to survive another convention vote in two years. Would it have been worse to take on real-life rivals in a full-fledged contest than to spend the next few years fighting shadows?

Yes, former Tory leader Joe Clark and the Canadian Alliance’s Stockwell Day both took that particular route and it led them to a wall. But every situation is different. As the prospective leadership field looks now, Mulcair would have stood head and shoulders above the competition.

As time went on this weekend, it became less and less clear what the NDP leader’s end game was.

It would have made strategic sense for Mulcair to allow, as he did, events to take their course to their inevitable conclusion on Sunday if he has come to simply want to put the leadership chapter of his life behind him. But it seems the opposite is true.

Given the result of the vote, most party leaders standing in his place would have issued a terse farewell and been on their way to pursue less thankless challenges. Instead he immediately offered to act as the party’s caretaker for up to two years.

Mulcair must be a glutton for punishment. Some even believe he could be amenable to being drafted to run for the job he just lost. That sounds crazy but no more so than some of the choices made in Edmonton this weekend. Rational calculations – as recent events have demonstrated – are not always at the root of political decisions.

Chantal Hébert is a national affairs writer. Her column appears Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday.

Copyright 2016 – Torstar Syndication Services

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