OTTAWA -- There was no disguising Jack Layton's glee yesterday as the NDP leader used his flirtation with left-wing Liberal stalwart Sheila Copps to tweak Prime Minister Paul Martin as too conservative for much of his own party. "You have somebody more conservative than (Tory) Brian Mulroney leading the Liberal party, (it) shouldn't even be allowed to be called the Liberal party any more," said Layton, eyes sparkling in anticipation of a fight.
By comparing Martin to Mulroney -- one of the least popular prime ministers in recent memory -- Layton waved a red flag at the prime minister's inner circle while issuing an "open invitation" to Liberals, left-leaning Conservatives and Bloc Quebecois supporters.
The NDP, he said, welcomes "people who believe that Paul Martin's conservative choices are taking the Liberal party and Canada in the wrong direction . . . it's a corporate drift away from Canadian values."
Copps, a former Liberal cabinet minister and two-time federal leadership contender, spoke Wednesday with Layton and later refused to rule out the possibility of switching to the New Democrats.
She's been embroiled in a bitter fight for the Liberal nomination in her Hamilton riding and is angry that Martin has refused to support her.
"I want to leave all my options open," Copps said yesterday.
"I never thought that I'd say this . . . but if my party can't run a fair and open process, then I will look at other options."
If Copps defects, it would give new credibility to Layton's claims of a right-wing drift in politics, an observer suggested.
"It would be a huge coup to Layton and the NDP if they got her," said Nelson Wiseman, a political scientist at the University of Toronto.
A spokes-person for the federal Liberal party said Martin remains committed to "having a great, centrist coalition."
"The progressive component of that coalition is very much alive and well in the Liberal party and we have no intention of abandoning that tradition or those fundamentals," Steven MacKinnon said.