MPs warned Singh in June that he's through as leader if he can't win Burnaby South

Two senior members of the federal NDP caucus warned NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh back in June that he won't be able to hang on as party leader if he loses next month's byelection in Burnaby South, CBC News has learned.

'It's not like you hope to win this thing. You have to. Your leadership rides on it.'

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh is interviewed while door knocking for his byelection campaign in Burnaby, B.C., on January 12, 2019. (Darryl Dyck/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Several senior members of the federal NDP caucus warned NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh back in June that he won't be able to hang on as party leader if he loses next month's byelection in Burnaby South, CBC News has learned.

Two New Democrat MPs, who spoke to CBC News on condition of anonymity, were among a small group of caucus members who met with Singh last summer to tell him that a loss in the Feb. 25 byelection would lead to overwhelming pressure on him to resign. They're among a group of nine NDP MPs who tell CBC News they believe Singh would have no choice but to resign if he doesn't win his seat next month.

"We told him going in, way back in June, when this was being contemplated ... that if you do this, this is all-in. It's not like you hope to win this thing. You have to. Your leadership rides on it," one MP told CBC News.

"That was understood. There may be some revisionist history going on if he doesn't (win)."

A former top NDP strategist agrees.

"It is self-evident. If you lose a byelection, if you can't win in the People's Republic of Burnaby, where can you win?" said Karl Bélanger, former national director of the NDP and former principal secretary to ex-leader Tom Mulcair.

"I think Mr. Singh knows that, and I think he is trying to show to everybody that he's going to win that seat and then lead the party in the next election."

The June meeting took place in a secluded committee room in the basement of Parliament Hill's Centre Block the week the House of Commons adjourned for the summer break.

An 'all-in' gamble

Sources told CBC News that the NDP leader agreed at the meeting that running in the byelection would be an "all-in" gamble. Singh, according to the sources, said he was confident of a win, that he believed he would be in his element campaigning in the community.

"So if he fails at his best, in a part of the country we have to do well in — British Columbia in general and Vancouver in particular — I don't know what their argument is to have Singh stay on as leader," a senior NDP MP said.

Speaking to CBC News Friday, Singh sidestepped questions about what he might do if he loses his byelection bid, insisting that he's in a good position to win.

"I'm not focused on myself and I know if we work hard, we're going to win here," he said. "We're going to win in Burnaby South because people need us."

​If Singh has agreed privately that he can't stay on if he fails to secure a Commons seat next month, that would contradict his public stance on the matter. In an interview with Rosemary Barton that aired on CBC's The National on January 20, Singh insisted he would stay on as leader even if he loses the February 25 vote.

"I will be the leader that leads the New Democratic Party into the 2019 election," Singh said. "I'm confident we're going to do well in this riding. We're connecting with people, we're getting a lot of support."

In total, CBC and Radio-Canada contacted more than half of the 40 members of the NDP caucus. Not all of the caucus members contacted by CBC News replied, but most of those who spoke to CBC say they feel confident Singh will win.

What happens if he loses?

Five declined to comment on what they called a 'hypothetical' scenario. Two caucus members expressed their full support for Singh. Some said they believe the decision to stay or go rests with him.

Caucus members aren't the only ones saying Singh must go if he falls short in Burnaby South. Some non-caucus veterans of New Democrat campaigns agree — although at least one is pointing out that Singh's departure might be the result of a messy process.

"First, a group of party elders would counsel him that the time had come. If he resisted, then a caucus vote — non-binding, but humiliating," said the party strategist, who asked not to be named. "Then a vote by the Federal Council of the NDP.

"Choosing his time to go gives him the benefit of a graceful exit. Being pushed means it would end sadly. Given the crippled Liberal (byelection) campaign, I doubt it will come to that."

The Liberals recently tapped Richard T. Lee, a former B.C. legislator, to run in the riding after their first candidate, Karen Wang, resigned over a controversial campaign post urging Chinese people to vote for her as the "only" Chinese candidate.

CBC News has learned, however, that the NDP is working on various contingency plans that could take effect if Singh fails in Burnaby South.

Plans B, C and beyond

If, for example, Singh loses and immediately steps aside as leader, one option would be to immediately stage a leadership contest — much like the one that quickly came together in Ontario after Patrick Brown was forced to step down as Progressive Conservative leader over allegations of sexual misconduct.

But the federal NDP is in a very different place now than the Ontario PCs were last year, when they staged the leadership vote that ended up picking Doug Ford as Brown's replacement.

The provincial PCs were leading in the polls at the time; according to the CBC's Poll Tracker, the federal NDP's support stands at just 14.2 per cent nationally. The Ontario Conservatives had amassed a huge warchest by the time Brown left and were easily able to pay for a convention. The federal NDP, meanwhile, continues to struggle with fundraising.

​Another option could see the caucus choose an interim leader. Two names have been suggested in NDP circles as possible caretaker leaders: B.C. MP Nathan Cullen and Quebec MP Guy Caron.

Any interim leader chosen by caucus would have to be approved by the federal council before leading the party into the general election, which would be followed by a leadership race — the only way a permanent leader can be chosen under party rules.

Some caucus members have mapped out what they see as a graceful exit for Singh: offering him the position of deputy leader and Ontario lieutenant and letting him run in Brampton East, an area he used to represent provincially. Singh could subsequently run for the party leadership again, strengthened politically by having secured a seat in the Commons.

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh jogs up to a home while door-knocking for his byelection campaign in Burnaby, B.C., on Saturday January 12, 2019. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

Belanger said that if Singh were to lose in Burnaby South and then attempt to hang on as party leader, the only way to remove him would be through a leadership review.

But leadership reviews happen at party conventions — and the NDP has no convention scheduled until after the fall federal election. In order to trigger a leadership review, a special convention would need to be called. It could only be called by the NDP federal council or at the request of a majority of federal riding associations.

One NDP strategist — who also asked not to be named — is skeptical about the special convention option: "Part of me doesn't have the faith in these people to bring a knife to the fight.

"These people have a challenge to face in the fact that this leader received an overwhelming vote from the membership on the first ballot (in the leadership race) and then had that vote reinforced in February 2018 with an overwhelming support from all the membership in a hugely attended convention here in Ottawa, when he got 92.8 per cent (support)."

Bracing for the worst

Former NDP MP and 2012 leadership candidate Peggy Nash said those working on a contingency plan to take effect if Singh loses in Burnaby South are simply doing the obvious.

"I like to play chess and I always think a few moves ahead and I always have back-up plans. I would think that is just good sound management to want to have contingency plans for whatever happens," Nash said.

B.C. NDP MP Don Davies said he's confident Singh will take his seat next month, and that his presence in the House of Commons will strengthen his leadership. "I'm looking to that having a lot of benefits, including on our fundraising, and our general polling numbers," he said. "I think everything will be better once Jagmeet's in the House.

"There's been a lot of attention on what happens if he doesn't win. I think the only fair result of when he does win is that it should put to rest this chatter that's going on."

Jagmeet Singh's future as NDP leader? | Power Panel

5 years ago
Duration 9:34
Featured VideoNDP MPs have told CBC News that they warned Jagmeet Singh in June that he's finished as party leader if he doesn't win the Burnaby South byelection. The Power Panel - Stockwell Day, Rob Silver, Andrew Thomson and Marie Vastel discuss.


Hannah Thibedeau

Parliament Hill

Hannah Thibedeau is a veteran political reporter having covered the Hill for more than 15 years, both behind the scenes and in front of the camera. She covers politics for CBC TV, CBC Radio and CBC Politics online.