Ignatieff turns on the charm: is he the next Trudeau?

Canada’s opposition Liberal Party leader has a natural ally in the White House, which is not common
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The most significant part of Barack Obama’s visit to Canada this week may have been a meeting he squeezed in at the tail-end, with Michael Ignatieff.

Tall and distinguished looking, in a long coat and homburg hat, Mr Ignatieff, 61, is known to all as Iggy. And while the Canadian opposition leader is still less of a household name in his native country than in intellectual circles abroad, where he is well-known for his work as a writer, human rights activist and broadcaster (he presented the BBC’s The Late Show for years), that is changing rapidly.

This week, he could have been on the red carpet greeting the President but for his decision not to bring down the minority Canadian government when handed the opportunity in December. Now, with his natural ally in the White House, he finds himself plotting a way to power. “I do feel I made the right decision,” he said yesterday. “It would not have been right to layer political instability on top of substantial economic instability. Make that kind of misjudgement and no power you win will be worth having.”

Mr Obama’s meeting with Canada’s Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, who was a close ally of George Bush, drew most of the media attention – with both men awkwardly at pains to emphasise what close allies their two countries are. Mr Ignatieff, who leads the left-of-centre Liberal Party, was only allotted a 10-minute slot in a draughty, disused hanger at Ottawa airport even though his Parliament Hill office is just above the room where Mr Obama spent most of the day.

But those 10 minutes stretched to 25, and Mr Ignatieff, who many see as a prime minister-in-waiting, emerged smiling from the encounter. He said he was flattered to be complimented on articles he had written before entering politics. “It made this particular Canadian author feel pretty good,” he said.

The two also discussed the sharply deteriorating situation in Afghanistan. Canada has taken more than 100 casualties in Afghanistan but is pulling its forces out in 2011, just as the US is sharply increasing its commitment. Behind the scenes there is pressure on Canada to change track and stay, amid fears that it is becoming a quagmire.

“I said ‘Canadians have a sense of strategic drift there. We don’t know what the plan is.’ He [Obama] said, rather amusingly, that a lot of people in the White House feel exactly the same way.” The two politicians had not met previously but if Mr Ignatieff emerges in the coming months as the premier, it could be the start of a powerful new alliance. The two men share a world view on human rights, the environment and international affairs to a degree that is uncommon between the North American neighbours.

Since his return to Canada in 2006, after 27 years in Britain and the US, Mr Ignatieff’s political career has flown meteorically and his supporters see him in the mould of Pierre Trudeau, Canada’s last intellectual Prime Minister, who cut a swath on the international stage. They see Mr Ignatieff as a leader who will persuade Canada’s perennially squabbling provinces to pull together and cast off the country’s bland international profile.

Mr Obama and Mr Ignatieff have a lot in common besides their worldview, and mutual attraction. The Canadian opposition leader described President Obama as “an inspiration, because earlier than any other politician he’s discovered how tired we politicians sounded and found a way of re-inspiring people with language – because when you use it beautifully, people hear something true.”

But all is not well between the two countries. There is deep anxiety in Canada about US protectionist sentiments, as epitomised by the recent stimulus package’s “Buy American” clause. Still, Canadians seem to see Mr Obama as the embodiment of their own ideals. This explains why Mr Harper went out of his way to try and keep all the attention on himself.

Michael Ignatieff: Biography

Before he became a Canadian politician, Michael Ignatieff was a regular on British television as a commentator, critic and presenter. He started his career in journalism in the mid-1960s on the Canadian newspaper The Globe and Mail, and after a spell in academia, rejoined the media world in Britain, having moved there in 1978. As well as fronting The Late Show, he hosted Channel 4’s Voices and wrote a column for The Observer. He has remained a prolific author. After giving the keynote speech at the Canadian Liberal Party’s convention in 2005, it was announced that the man described by the weekly current affairs magazine Macleans as Canada’s “sexiest cerebral man”, was going to run for parliament at home. In December 2008 he replaced Stephane Dion as leader of the Liberal Party.