Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservatives set the stage for their first parliamentary survival test Friday, but the threatened political showdown that could lead to an early election appeared to be losing steam.

The pre-election fever in Ottawa eased a notch yesterday when the New Democrats suggested they might be willing to back the government — thus averting a vote of non-confidence in the Commons — because of new help for laid-off workers being proposed by the Conservatives.

Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff and his party remains committed to voting out Harper and forcing an election at the earliest opportunity.

But the Conservatives, who hold 143 of the Commons’ 308 seats, need only one of the other three parties to vote with the government to avoid being toppled in a confidence vote. The Liberals have 77 seats, the NDP, 36, and the Bloc Québécois, 48. (There is one Independent MP and three vacancies.)

NDP Leader Jack Layton signalled his party might prop up the Conservative minority after Human Resources Minister Diane Finley used the post-summer break return of MPs to Ottawa to reveal additional help for laid-off workers.

“The announcement today appears to be a step in the right direction,” Layton said in a prepared statement. “Our preference remains fighting for the unemployed rather than fighting for a second election.”

The NDP said it would take a close look at Finley’s proposed legislation, which would temporarily extend EI payments by an extra five to 20 weeks for laid-off “long-tenure” employees.

If the NDP is willing to support the Conservatives because of improved EI benefits, it should allow the Tories to survive a vote of confidence the Liberals are expected to introduce in the Commons in about two weeks.