OTTAWA (Reuters) - Newly minted Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff warned Prime Minister Stephen Harper on Wednesday he is prepared to topple the minority Conservative government but he also opened the door to compromise.
Ignatieff said he was willing to form a coalition government with the New Democratic Party, or fight another election -- even though the Conservatives crushed the Liberals in October -- unless Harper becomes more collaborative.
"So the ball is in Mr. Harper's court," Ignatieff, a former Harvard historian, told a news conference just after the party chose him to replace Stephane Dion, who stepped down because of the electoral loss.
"Mr. Harper now has a choice. He can continue down this path of divisive politics or he can start working constructively with Parliament. The choice is his."
Ignatieff, who is expected to try to nudge the party away from the left and more to the political center, took a softer line with Harper than those who favored bringing down the Conservatives, no matter what, after Parliament reconvenes on January 26 and the government presents its promised budget the next day.
He nonetheless sought to show that he would not be a pushover, declaring that Harper had lost the confidence of the House of Commons and had to earn it back.
"I am prepared to vote non-confidence in this government, and I am prepared to enter into a coalition government with our partners," he said.
Last week, the Liberals signed a formal agreement with the left-leaning New Democratic Party and the separatist Bloc Quebecois to try to bring the Conservatives down and install a Liberal-NDP government.
This prompted a backlash from many Canadians, and Ignatieff has distanced himself from the plan somewhat.
He said he told the Liberal caucus on Wednesday that no party could enjoy the confidence of Canadians "if it decides to vote against a budget it hasn't even read."
Harper angered the opposition in late November when the government's fall fiscal update failed to introduce economic stimulus measures while trying to cut off public funding for political parties.
On Tuesday, a more conciliatory Harper said he would like to sit down with Ignatieff and hear his ideas for a budget he promised would have stimulus measures.
Ignatieff said there was room to work as long as fiscal responsibility and national unity were respected. But he said he would not be actively seeking a meeting with Harper: "He knows where to find me."
He also gave a clear warning to the Conservative Party not to roll out attack ads at this sensitive stage, as it did with devastating effect after Dion won the Liberal leadership in December 2006.
"We are in a situation of parliamentary crisis. The prime minister of Canada has lost the confidence of the House of Commons," Ignatieff said.
"It would seem to me -- I don't want to offer the prime minister any advice -- a very, very serious mistake to engage in partisan attacks against the party leader at this moment. I hope I make myself clear."
Both Ignatieff and Dion are former university professors but Ignatieff has shown himself more able to deliver punchy sound bites in both English and French, though he has drawn some criticism for appearing aloof and aristocratic.
He also faces the difficult task of rebuilding a party that is broke and is poorly organized in large parts of Canada, particularly in the West and Quebec.