It was appropriate that as he embarked on the biggest political gamble of his life, Paul Martin chose to talk about wavering at the edge of the Rubicon. Ordered by Prime Minister Jean Chrétien to stand down in his campaign to replace him, the finance minister saw the parallels with a momentous turning point in the history of the ancient world. In Martin's mental construction, he was a latter-day Julius Caesar on the banks of the river, instructed to disband his army and, in essence, swear allegiance to consul Pompey. As every history student knows, Caesar instead led his formidable army across the Rubicon to defeat Pompey in a bloody civil war.

And no-holds-barred, winner-take-all war is what Martin and Chrétien declared on June 2, when Ottawa's two strong men irrevocably ruptured their nine-year political partnership. Despite mutual public utterances of respect, the enmity between the two was evident during the Sunday afternoon phone conversation to discuss their deteriorating relationship. The call was brief and so thick with distrust that Chrétien quickly handed the phone to long-time adviser Eddie Goldenberg in order to secure a mutual declaration of divorce. Martin, who was in his car en route back to the capital from his farm southeast of Montreal, refused to sign on - asking for more time to ponder his options - but there was little to decide for either man. Martin had effectively manoeuvred Chrétien into firing him, and subsequently heard of his success on the car radio. Martin loyalist David Herle, an Ottawa consultant, admitted the finance minister was going to resign in any case, but still blasted Chrétien. "The Prime Minister did not have the courage or class to tell it to him directly," he said.

Last week, the two rival camps began assessing their strengths and plotting strategies for the battle that will likely culminate in a leadership review convention in February, 2003. Normally that would be an occasion for party leaders to bask in the adulation of the faithful. But Chrétien hinted last week he is treating the upcoming showdown as a de facto leadership contest. And he may be prepared to declare victory with a bare majority - a low threshold considering Joe Clark stepped down from the helm of the Progressive Conservative party in 1983 after mustering 66 per cent support. Party president Stephen LeDrew - who squelched attempts to postpone the review - said he will take steps to ensure transparency and fairness. Remembering that some questioned the 90-per-cent level of support for Chrétien in the 1998 review, LeDrew said he will recommend to his executive that a retired judge or independent accountant monitor the process. With so much at stake, he declared, "I'm not going to have anybody impugn the integrity of this vote."

Almost immediately, the Martin camp jumped into action. Their spin - that the Prime Minister had risked party unity for his personal gain - was bolstered by Monday morning headlines in several newspapers portraying the split as a Chrétien broadside against his chief rival. And Martin attempted to paint himself as a loyal party man by publicly urging his supporters to hold their fire and do nothing to damage the government. Canadians can expect to see more of Martin taking the high road. In the coming weeks, he will set out on a cross-country series of speeches outlining his grand vision for the country - details to follow - implicitly contrasting it with Chrétien's no-surprises governing style. He will likely direct no personal attacks at the Prime Minister, knowing full well his own loyalists are ready to take up the slack.

So far they've come through. Caucus chairman Stan Keyes stage-managed Wednesday's caucus meeting to ensure that pro-Martin MPs had ample opportunity to vent their anger at Chrétien. Others, among them Toronto-area MP Dan McTeague, sounded the alarm over what a Martin-less government would mean to the party's future electoral prospects. Many sitting Liberal MPs would not have been elected in 2000, he and others said, had not the finance minister vigorously campaigned side by side with Chrétien. "Mr. Martin is the favoured choice of rank-and-file Canadians," McTeague told Maclean's, "and they're saying, 'Thank you, Prime Minister - you've done a good job, but it's time for change.' "

Meanwhile, Martinites are preparing to wage trench warfare - as dirty as necessary - for control of the 301 constituency associations across Canada that will decide the Prime Minister's fate. By almost universal consensus, Martin has already amassed enough ground troops to roll over Chrétien at the leadership review convention. That may sound incredible, but even Chrétien's advisers acknowledge they have not adequately prepared for the battle ahead. In an admission of weakness, Chrétien last month ordered each cabinet minister to deliver to him 500 votes for the leadership review. On the other hand, Martin, who lost the 1990 leadership race to Chrétien, has been organizing for the next time ever since. Martin support is so entrenched and widespread that Brian Tobin abandoned his drive for the top job and left federal politics in January when he realized the futility of challenging him. As well, Martin is believed to be supported by two-thirds of the 170 Liberal MPs in caucus.

For Chrétien, the strategy is less clearcut. With no organization on the ground, the Prime Minister's camp intends to deploy a carrot-and-stick approach to keep Liberals in line. Publicly, they continue to praise Martin's contribution to the government over the past nine years, but privately they paint him as a man obsessed with gaining power. "What's his reason for wanting the Prime Minister out?" asked a Chrétien insider. "That he's getting old so it's now or never?" (Martin is 63, Chrétien 68.) They also noted that for all the talk of Martin as the indispensable man, the markets reacted with a disinterested shrug at the news of his departure. The longer he is out of the spotlight, Chrétien's supporters argue, the more Martin will come to be just another MP who, as in Pierre Trudeau's immortal put-down, is a "nobody" off Parliament Hill.

As prime minister, Chrétien has a formidable array of weapons at his disposal to keep his caucus in line. He has already demonstrated he can be ruthless when provoked. Last week, he threatened to call a snap election if MPs loyal to Martin ganged up to vote down a routine budget motion to supply the government with money to operate during the fiscal year. He can reward and punish MPs with cabinet posts, committee chair positions, the promise of Senate appointments and other perks. And he can punish disloyalty, as he dramatically showed with his handling of Martin. Facing a raucous caucus meeting Wednesday, Chrétien sent a chill through the room with his dare to the Martinites. "If you think I am a disaster, vote for a review," he was reported as telling them. Then came the catch - "You gamble. I might win." Enough said.

Insiders say Chrétien's ace in the hole is the party's mythology of loyalty to the leader - which is why, they argue, that the Liberals are regarded as Canada's natural governing power, holding office throughout most of the past century. "The Tories stab their leader in the back, not Liberals," said one Chrétien adviser. "Look at 1986 when John Turner was at 39 per cent in the polls and had 40 seats. He still got 76 per cent support in the leadership review." Chrétien, who has delivered three consecutive majority governments, shouldn't even be undergoing a review, the loyalist added.

Who will win? Liberal history may be with Chrétien, but the hard numbers are with Martin. While no sitting prime minister has ever been done in by an inside job, none have faced a popular rival with unlimited resources who's been organizing for this moment the better part of a decade. And hostility to Chrétien has been building for years at the constituency level. Patrick Maloney, president of the Vancouver Centre Liberal riding association, vows the Prime Minister will be embarrassed if he presses the fight. He says Liberals in his area are "offended" by the way Chrétien treated his most credible rival. Since Martin's exit, Maloney has been inundated with inquiries from non-Liberals about joining the party in order to oust the Prime Minister. "Not only are we ready for a fight, we're looking forward to it," he says. "We consider this a chance to cleanse the party."

Many Martinites, convinced of their invincibility, hope it never comes to that. They foresee a scenario where Chrétien, once he sees Martin's strength in constituency delegate selection meetings this fall, will choose a graceful retreat. "There needs to be a very clear demonstration on the ground," said a Martinite MP. "Then there would be incentive to find an accommodation." LeDrew said that if Chrétien were to announce his intention to resign and call for a full leadership convention, the Liberal executive would cancel the review. That would leave Martin to square off not against the Prime Minister, but against newly appointed Finance Minister John Manley, Industry Minister Allan Rock and Heritage Minister Sheila Copps, all of whom covet the top job.

In spite of Martin's ground strength, some in Chrétien's camp question if his supporters have the stomach for the fight. Winnipeg Centre association president Don Beemer, a Chrétien loyalist, says only a minority of Martin supporters are willing to kill the king to see their man triumph. The majority would back the deposed finance minister once the Prime Minister has voluntarily stepped aside. "At the end of the day, they're asking Liberals to vote against a sitting prime minister who's led them to three consecutive election victories," he observed. "That's a lot of gum to swallow all at once."

Especially if there is evidence the Prime Minister is capable of delivering a fourth majority. Public opinion polls suggest that is entirely possible. Chrétien has arguably suffered through the worst month since taking office - with the exception of October, 1995, the Quebec referendum. His government has been rocked by allegations of misspending, and even criminal malfeasance, in the doling out of millions of dollars to promote the federalist cause in Quebec. He fired Defence Minister Art Eggleton for giving his former girlfriend an untendered contract, and shuffled Don Boudria from Public Works back to House Leader after an embarrassing lapse of judgment. Then he lost his most popular minister. Yet one poll published late last week showed that while a Martin-led Liberal party would win 61 per cent if an election were called now, Chrétien would still garner 42 per cent, normally sufficient for a majority.

More telling will be polls conducted this fall, says pollster Darrell Bricker of Toronto's Ipsos-Reid firm. That's when Martin's departure will have had time to sink in and Liberals begin to focus on the upcoming leadership review. "If you start seeing Liberal numbers edging down and one of the opposition parties picking up, it'll be trouble for Chrétien," says Bricker. "That'll be an indication that Canadians are starting to consider an alternative to the Liberals." Under those circumstances, Liberal delegates to the leadership review convention may think it's better to give Canadians the change they want - rather than have voters look for it elsewhere.

Maclean's June 17, 2002