MONTREAL – Federal Liberals were left grappling with the fallout Tuesday from a nuclear performance by Denis Coderre, who quit his post as the party’s Quebec lieutenant in spectacular fashion a day earlier.
The potential damage caused by Coderre’s parting shot – his claim that the Liberal party is run by Torontonians – became obvious when the three other parties gleefully announced their plans to use the comments to bash the Liberals in the next election.
One Bloc Quebecois official said there were actually “high fives” in the office when staff heard Coderre’s comments. He said the message fits precisely the theme the sovereigntist party has been trying to hammer home: that Michael Ignatieff’s supposed openness to Quebec is phony.
The NDP said they’ll use the remarks in the campaign. And the Conservatives announced plans to make every Quebec voter hear about them.
“It’s safe to assume that candidates across the province will be talking about it,” said a senior Conservative operative.
“We won’t hesitate to point out the fact that Quebecers carry no weight in the Liberal Party of Canada.”
Coderre resigned following a clash of personalities within the party, which began with a dispute over which candidate should run in the Montreal riding of Outremont.
Five members of the party executive in Quebec followed Coderre out the door, and supporters are now talking about boycotting a weekend assembly of Liberals in Quebec City.
A Montreal-area fundraiser Tuesday night required a last-minute facelift. It was originally dubbed the “Lieutenant’s Cocktail” – but it clearly required a name change since the party no longer had a Quebec lieutenant.
Because Coderre was no longer attending the fundraiser, Ignatieff came in his place.
As he arrived the Liberal leader told reporters internal solutions would be found to the disputes. And he stated the obvious: “We’ve had a little pushing and shoving. It has not been the easiest week of my life,” Ignatieff said.
Coderre’s decision to resign Monday stemmed from a rift with Martin Cauchon, a longtime rival who wanted to re-enter politics in his old riding of Outremont.
At first, Ignatieff strongly backed Coderre’s decision to appoint a prominent businesswoman in the riding instead of Cauchon. After much grumbling from other Liberals about how Cauchon was treated, the leader tried finding an amicable solution. In the end, Ignatieff did an about-face and reversed Coderre’s decision.
Coderre then angrily abandoned his role as regional boss, and accused Toronto advisers of disrespecting the Quebec team.
After Coderre resigned, so did the party’s chief organizer in Quebec, the head of the party’s candidate-approval committee for the province, a key fundraiser, an advisor to Coderre, and Coderre’s own cousin, who co-ordinated the Liberal party office in Montreal.
Some Liberals fear the resignations will leave a serious vacuum in the upper ranks of their Quebec wing.
Others bid them all good riddance.
“I don’t think any of the people who followed Denis out the door were that competent,” said one very prominent Quebec Liberal.
“I think that they were very aligned with Mr. Coderre’s interests – but not necessarily so with the party’s.”
The well-connected Liberal doesn’t believe it will be tough to fill the now-vacant party positions, and he believes it’s also time to abandon the position of Quebec lieutenant.
“I just think it’s a bit of an anachronism and a throwback to days of old – where things like patronage and whatnot were perhaps a little more prevalent,” he said of the position, which he calls unique to Quebec.
Jean Lapierre, a former Quebec lieutenant under Paul Martin, said it’s critical that Ignatieff act quickly to fill the void left by Coderre and “reassure the troops” that the Quebec wing is being well taken care of, especially since the party has vowed to trigger an election at any moment.
“People have all kinds of question marks in their head at this time,” he said.
“There’s a vacuum at the top of the Quebec organization and that has to be filled very fast. And I think that’s the challenge of Mr. Ignatieff right now.”
Lapierre, who is now a political commentator, says Ignatieff has a tough road ahead of him. He says he can’t think of anybody inside or outside of caucus who’d be a good fit for the lieutenant’s role.
And as somebody who’s done it, he says the job is not for everybody.
“That’s the worst job you can have,” he said.
“People hate your guts but you’re there to protect the leader. It’s a tough job.”