Prairie populist becomes leader of the opposition

Preston Manning becomes the leader of Canada's official opposition today, with his Reform Party taking an extra six seats to push ahead of the weakened Bloc Quebecois.

In small ways - becoming first in the queue to ask parliamentary questions, for example - it will elevate the status of a man who has become the voice of Western discontent. Mr Manning signally failed in his election master strategy to push his support east into Ontario, and so undercut the Liberal's majority. While he established that Reform was more than a one-hit wonder, after it emerged from almost nowhere four years ago, its support is now almost exclusively regional.

Mr Manning became a bete noire in the closing weeks of the election when he accused the other parties of pandering to Quebec by accepting it as a "distinct society" within Canada. But the tactic shored up his support in his Western powerbase in British Columbia and Alberta, where the party's grip on seats had shown signs of slipping.

He had called for a series of debates on Canadian unity similar to the seven debates on the future of slavery between US President Abraham Lincoln and Illinois Senator Stephen Douglas. They came three years before the American Civil War.

If Quebec left Canada, he said, other provinces should hold their own referendums on independence. Prime Minister Jean Chretien accused him of appealing to the "dark side", pushing the buttons that divide. The Democratic Party leader, Alexa McDonough, said where Mr Manning's policies "would lead us in this country is straight into a civil war".

Mr Manning, 54, is usually cast as the "prairie populist", raised on an Edmonton dairy farm and steeped in fundamentalist Christian values. Sceptics say most of his childhood was spent in the back of his father's limousine. He was two when his father, Ernest, began 25 years as the Premier of Alberta. The son was undoubtedly raised as a political animal. But while the father ran the local government and was never in opposition, the son ran for office in Ottawa and has never been in power. Elected as Reform leader in 1987, he revamped his image for this election from "geek to sleek".

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