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Layton holds the election card

Hotheads in both the Liberal and Conservative parties are champing at the notion of a snap election call.

It won't happen, because Jack Layton doesn't want it to happen -- not, at least, until Nov. 14.

Some (though by no means all) Conservative strategists are anxious to force an election this month. Stephen Harper may be having a difficult season as leader, but the party's position is stronger than most people suspect. The Tories are competitive in the polls, have more money in the bank than the Liberals and can expect a bounce in support when the first Gomery report on the sponsorship scandal comes out on Nov 1.

Better to go now, goes the reasoning, than to wait until March -- Prime Minister Paul Martin's promised date for an election call -- by which time the Gomery effect may have dissipated and the Liberals will have had a chance to bring down a new budget and perhaps even a Throne Speech.

But the Conservatives absolutely, positively will not attempt to defeat the government unless they have the support of the New Democratic Party. No one wants a repeat of last spring's shenanigans.

Some Liberals would welcome being forced into a fall election. Rising gasoline and home-heating costs could become an "auto-insurance" issue: a sudden crisis that undermines confidence in the government, in the way that spiking insurance premiums almost brought down Bernard Lord's Conservatives in New Brunswick.

No wonder cabinet moved yesterday to subsidize low-income home-heating costs. The problem for the Liberals is that there simply isn't enough money to extend those subsidies to the broader middle class, which is where the votes lie. So why not go now, some Liberals are asking, before people see their heating bills?

The answer is that the risks of campaigning in the shadow of the Gomery report's release are just too high. Mr. Martin's advisers would rather take their chances in the spring. And Mr. Layton will probably let them.

The NDP Leader has been calling the shots in the 37th Parliament ever since last April, when he agreed to prop up the government in exchange for increased budget spending, especially on education.

Now Mr. Layton has another shopping list: new measures to restrict the private delivery of health services; retaliatory tariffs to punish the Americans for refusing to bend in the softwood-lumber dispute; concrete steps to reduce carbon-dioxide emissions; and legislated protection for workers' pensions.

The Liberals can take only limited action on these demands, since they are in the main impractical or too expensive. So expect the NDP to soon declare that this do-nothing government doesn't deserve to live another day. But don't expect that declaration until early November. Mr. Layton knows that forcing an election before Gomery One comes out would be too opportunistic. Besides, the only realistic opportunity to defeat the government this month will come with the vote on the energy rebates for low-income families, not the sort of thing the NDP would normally oppose.

A November election call remains a remote possibility. If Mr. Layton decides the Liberals will not act on his agenda, that the Gomery effect needs to be exploited and that the public won't punish his party for pulling the plug, then he might signal to Mr. Harper and Bloc Québécois Leader Gilles Duceppe that his party is ready to vote at their side.

To forestall that eventuality, House Leader Tony Valeri announced yesterday that the first opposition day, in which a motion of no confidence can be brought against the government, will be Nov. 14. Defeating the government on that day would set election day within a week of Christmas, although the Liberals could extend the campaign into January.

But in any case, we are now very far down a hypothetical road. What matters is this: There is very little chance that there will be an election before the spring. Unless Jack Layton changes his mind.

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