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The political death of Jack Layton

Lost — somewhere on the campaign trail between March 26 and May 2 — the political life of Jack Layton, despite a game but futile struggle against the harsh realities of health and politics.

The slow unwinding of the New Democratic campaign, heightened by its leader’s difficult struggle with hip surgery and prostate cancer, stands as the most notable development in the first week of Canada’s 41st general election. This is a story that the mainstream media has been hesitant to touch.

Not all of the NDP’s difficulties are  due to Mr. Layton’s slow recovery, which has forced him to trim his number of daily appearances. It’s also the consequence of the Conservative focus on its quest for a majority to prevent an “Opposition coalition,” and of Michael Ignatieff’s aggressive uptake on Stephen Harper’s musings about a one-on-one debate.

Evidence of the serious struggle Mr. Layton is having with his health can be seen in every TV appearance. He is starkly underweight and walks with difficulty, even with the help of a cane. He looks tired and despite his best efforts to flash his usual sunny smile, the campaign is clearly exhausting him.

While there was some discussion of the NDP leader’s health going into the campaign, reporters have largely skirted the issue, understandably fearful of looking insensitive.  By Friday, however, he was being questioned as to why he was making so few appearances. The small crowds and flat reception Mr. Layton was getting at his rallies was also being noted.

Voters see what’s going on, and the party’s decline in the polls can reasonably be linked, at least in part, to concerns about Mr. Layton’s personal well-being. How can a guy claim to be running for Prime Minister, people must be asking, when it’s pretty obvious what’s happening.

None of this detracts  from Mr. Layton’s decency, his competence, or his dedication to the best interests of Canadians. He has well-earned his substantial approval ratings, but it has to be noted that he’s recently dropped below Mr. Ignatieff in that department.

Mr. Layton and the NDP face difficult decisions in the days ahead. The link between the leader’s health and the party’s standing will never be precisely known, but one must assume that NDP strategists are factoring these considerations into their planning.

One possibility is  for Jack Layton to immediately step down as leader, with the NDP caucus turning the campaign over to Thomas Mulcair, his Quebec lieutenant and the MP for Montreal Outremont.A move as dramatic as this could reinvigorate the NDP campaign, and incidentally help Mulcair hold onto his seat.

Other politicians have recognized the need for drastic action in the face of a losing campaign. Jacques Parizeau, faced with faltering support in the 1995 Quebec referendum, turned the campaign over to Lucien Bouchard. We all know how the charismatic Bouchard came within an eye lash of winning that vote.

There’s another reason for a change in the NDP leadership. If the party’s vote continues to implode the chief beneficiary is likely to be Stephen Harper, who could ride to a majority by picking off key NDP seats in British Columbia, northern Ontario, and on the prairies. At least half of the dozen seats the Tories need for a majority could come in ridings they lost narrowly in 2008 to the NDP. A shift in the NDP vote to the Liberals might not be enough to elect Liberals, but it could do the job for the Conservatives.

On balance, the country could be best served by Mr. Layton making the difficult personal decision to relinquish the leadership and retire to his own seat in Toronto, where he is sure of re-election. It’s a decision better made sooner, when there would be still time for the NDP to regroup, rather than later, when the campaign could be beyond resurrection.

The NDP and the cause for which it stands is greater and more important than any one man. Stepping down now is an option Mr. Layton needs to seriously examine.

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