The honeymoon between new Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff and the Conservative government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper is now officially over. It's been somewhat remarkable it lasted this long.
Desperate to win the support of the Liberals, the Tories had given Ignatieff a fairly easy time of it after he wrangled the leadership away from other contenders in a shot-gun wedding last fall.
Now that Ignatieff has his Liberals on board to support the budget, the gloves are coming off again. And the Tories are indicating they are preparing to launch a series of attack advertisements againt Ignatieff, similar to those used to rock and already shaky Stephane Dion prior to the 2008 federal election.
(As an aside, I refuse to refer to Ignatieff as Iggy. There is only one Iggy -- Iggy Pop -- and frankly, I don't see the resemblance.)
Why the change in strategy? The Tories may believe they are coming out of a prolonged defensive posture, brought on last fall when the party failed to win a majority by taking full advantage of a deeply depleted Liberal party.
Certainly, by the time Finance Minister Jim Flaherty tabled his November economic statement, the Tories were in full circle-the-wagon mode.
Condemnation of their economic strategy, a failure to accurately predict the evolution of the economy, and a general sense of insensitivity put the Tories on their heels. They needed help, first from the governor general who prorogued parliament, and then from the Liberals, to pass the January budget and stave off a vote of non-confidence.
Ah, but that was then and this is now. Having secured support for the budget, the Tories are in attack mode. They've ratcheted up the rhetoric during Question Period, and national news reports indicate Tory staffers are poring over Ignatieff's interviews, televisions spots and writings to find the embarassing and controversial material.
The motivation is clear. "We poll better on offence," a Tory staffer told The Globe and Mail. Indeed.
Politics is a full-contact sport and attack advertisements are certainly well within the accepted rules of engagement. Political parties use attack ads for one simple reason - they work.
I know politicians often decry attack ads as signs of a desperate strategy, but all parties at one time or another use them because they tend to produce results.
Attack ads serve two real purposes. First, they do tend to sway some undecided voters for whom a tarnished image may be enough to get them to vote in another direction. And second, they tend to stoke the emotions of supporters which ensures they show up on election day to vote, if for no other reason to stop the other guy from getting in.
That said, the Tories should consider the fact that this tactic has not, in fact, proved to be a winning formula in and of itself.
While the Tory attack campaigns have been successful in weakening the opposition, it appeared that Dion, left to his own devices, probably did enough to scuttle himself. Creating a negative image of a leader who is already suffering from a negative image is a qualified accomplisment at best.
The attack ads also seem to run contrary to the other principal goal of the Tory election strategy, namely to make Harper look like he's a kinder and gentler man of the people.
In other words, the Tories would like you to think Harper isn't the kind of leader who would approve attack ads. Perhaps it's time to admit these two tactics are in conflict.
The concern here for Tory supporters is that disparaging Ignatieff is not, on its own, enough to give the Tories a majority government. We know they are masters of making the opposition look unappealing. But so far, we haven't seen any indication the Tories know how to make themselves seem more appealing.