The news that Jack Layton is again battling cancer is very distressing. On a personal level, it must be a tremendous set back for the man and his wife, who have each previously battled the disease. On a political level, it is also a setback for an Official Opposition which is just beginning to find its legs.
There is no doubt that the public is on Layton's side. As Adam Radwanski writes in this morning's Globe and Mail,
There is no overestimating the extent to which Mr. Layton’s personal popularity has propelled the NDP’s surge. By far the most charismatic of his generation of federal leaders, he has consistently polled ahead of his party. With each of the four elections under his leadership, the NDP’s image has revolved more and more around his own. And the more Canadians have seen him, the more they’ve liked him – taking the party from 8.5-per-cent national support in the last election under his predecessor to nearly four times that figure earlier this year.
That is why his present circumstances are particularly galling. The man has had enough to deal with lately. But, more importantly -- as Radwanski correctly notes -- Layton has been the "glue" which holds his party together. The NDP is,
a party that could very easily fracture, both between its idealists and its pragmatists, and between its newly dominant (and quasi-nationalist) Quebec wing and everyone else. Mr. Layton is the New Democrats’ glue – partly because New Democrats have to defer to his popularity, and partly because he effortlessly straddles these different groups. But if he’s all that’s holding them together, then sooner or later they’ll fall apart.
Interim leader Nycole Turmel has her work cut out for her.
And Stephen Harper -- as Lawrence Martin has pointed out on more than one occasion -- has had an extraordinary run of good luck. The task of defining the government now falls to Ms. Turmel and Mr. Rae. It is they who must show that the "Harper Government" has taken on the personality of the man who leads it -- spendthrift, mean spirited and arrogant.