Will the NDP's caucus meeting be a group hug or a coup? They decide today

It's clear that questions about Tom Mulcair's role as interim leader will be raised when the NDP meet in Montreal today. What's less certain is where that discussion will lead.

After some MPs made moves to oust him, Tom Mulcair will find out if he has the support to remain leader

NDP Leader Tom Mulcair prepares to go whitewater rafting along the St. Lawrence River with several MPs in advance of meeting with his caucus in Montreal. Will it be another turbulent ride today? (Louis Blouin/CBC Radio-Canada)

When Tom Mulcair sits down in Montreal today, he will look across a table at more than 40 MPs as well as members of the NDP executive and know that some of them want him gone.

But who? And how many? Certainly a few members of caucus have never loved Mulcair. A summer apart and the party's puny standings in the polls — along with the challenges that presents for attracting volunteers and donors — have only fuelled that disdain.

Mulcair's defenders insist there are only a handful of agitators and note that none have been willing to offer more than anonymous grumblings about Mulcair's performance as interim leader.

Hans Marotte, the party's vice-president, estimates there are perhaps only two or three people around the NDP's table who will be prepared to speak out against Mulcair. He predicts a brief discussion — perhaps 10 minutes — before the group gets back to talking about how to plan for the fall session of Parliament.

Publicly, Mulcair has continued to grit his teeth and smile through it all. But it can't be easy. Anyone who knows Mulcair will tell you what the man himself has said about his personality when challenged: he's elbows up and takes on all comers.

When Radio-Canada reporter Louis Blouin caught up with him Tuesday, Mulcair had just finished whitewater rafting along the St Lawrence River with several MPs. There were even a few corny jokes exchanged in front of the cameras about the orange hue of the life-jackets and Mulcair's determination to remain captain of the NDP's ship.

"We're all here together and I've got the strong support of my caucus colleagues. I couldn't be prouder," said Mulcair.

​Uncertain support​

But privately, the prospect that caucus could decide to hold a secret ballot on Mulcair's political future must trigger some toxic memories.

It was only five months ago that NDP delegates in Edmonton fell into an awkward silence as they realized they had just voted Mulcair out of the leadership.

Mulcair had dramatically misunderstood how much support he had. Perhaps his own public assurances that he had enough support led some to feel they could vote against him without any real consequences.

Just days before that fateful Edmonton vote, Mulcair sat down with Peter Mansbridge and said, "I have yet to hear anyone in caucus openly challenge my leadership, but you know what? It wouldn't be the end of the world if there was, because we're the New Democratic Party. We are the NDP."

What's the alternative? 

It may help Mulcair that no one has publicly said they are ready to fill his shoes — either as interim or permanent leader. Then again, there wasn't anyone openly gunning for his job in Edmonton, and the party still made the leap into the unknown.

At that time, though, NDP supporters had just heard speeches that seemed to enrapture the progressive crowd. Both Alberta NDP Leader Rachel Notley and former Ontario NDP leader Stephen Lewis charmed their audience. When Mulcair took to the stage the next day, his speech fell flat by comparison.

As caucus meets in Montreal, the situation is dramatically different. MPs rallied behind his decision to stay on as interim leader just a few months ago.

Now they must decide whether the drop in the polls is so precipitous and otherwise unavoidable that Mulcair cannot be allowed to remain at the helm for another year. 

They must also consider whether ousting him will create more uncertainty at a time when the party desperately needs to focus its energy on winning back vote stolen by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's Liberals.

Why does Mulcair want to stay?​ 

Last week, Mulcair told CBC Radio's The House why he feels he ought to stay, despite those anonymous complaints that he's a drag on the party.

"I think it's a question of having a steady hand, experience and making sure we continue to give a good performance in the House [of Commons]."

​But there's also the question of why he would choose to stick around for another year of this.

Some in the NDP credit a sense of duty. They point out that he received waves of applause at the Edmonton convention when he agreed to stay on as interim leader. Tearful outgoing party president Rebecca Blaikie called it "a very, very honourable way to go." 

He may still feel he has political work to do, some issue he can hammer away at to help build his political legacy. Counting both the provincial and federal experience, politics has been his life for more than two decades.

And of course there's the fact that Mulcair is not known as a man who likes to be told what to do. Nor is he likely to want to end that two-decade career by being shoved out the door by his own party.


Catherine Cullen

Senior reporter

Catherine Cullen is host of CBC Radio's The House and a Senior Reporter on Parliament Hill.


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