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Rex Murphy Point of View

October 29, 2009

Waiting for the apple to fall from the tree may have worked for Isaac Newton; but it's not a strategy for the Leader of the Opposition.

Michael Ignatieff has had the worst month of his short term as Liberal leader: the clouds are dark and settling over his head.   The Tories are smirking.  Fellow Liberals have gone from "somewhat worried" to "oh Lord! anxious".  The dreaded shadow of "buyer's remorse" palls many a conversation.

Cruel comparisons are on the lips of the man in the street, the most lethal being "…worse than Dion".

The short, happy tenure of Michael Ignatieff as Liberal leader is in its crisis moment.

What's happened to the man, recruited from the academy by some of the bright fixers of the Liberal party, hailed in the early days of his return as the  "new Trudeau" who would carry the Liberals back to their rightful position as the only party which should be the government of all Canadians?

A summer perceived as idle may be one thing. He seemed on sabbatical from June to September.

His awkward fits of pseudo-bravado - the "report card" foolishness, the "Stephen Harper must go" stuff and, especially, threatening an election.  That got people to turn their heads and have their first really good look at him.  "What's your rush - new guy?" was the disdainful response.

Declining anything approaching a real statement of policy was another.

Mainly, however, it all reduces to this: Since becoming leader, Mr. Ignatieff has just been standing there, waiting …there was no need to act, or speak, or work to change the tide.  They are Liberals, and Liberals - save for brief spasms of electoral fever - deserve power and will always be returned to it.  Harper - if you live in Liberal dreamland - is a slight rip in the fabric of political fate.

That assumption, the "natural governing party" one, is wired into the brain of the Liberal party.  It makes them lazy.  It also ticks off a lot of people who are not genetically Liberal.

Mr. Ignatieff probably bought into it, too - probably accepted the fatal equation:  If I become Liberal leader, I will, therefore, automatically become Prime Minister.  It's a law, like gravity.  All I have to do is wait for the apple to fall, as it will, from the tree.

Doesn't work that way anymore. The Liberals, just like the Conservatives - maybe more so even - have to prove themselves these days.

By the way, Peter Donolo's return as chief of staff is interesting.  But don't make too much of it.

It's great to have a good first-mate.  But all the best ships are driven by the skipper. It's the Captain in the spotlight right now:  a stern gale is blowing, the passengers are nervous, and the crew is not impressed.

This is the true testing-time for Michael Ignatieff.

For The National, I'm Rex Murphy.