OTTAWA (Reuters) - Canada's Liberal Party moved to distance itself on Friday from the idea that it would still be willing to forge a coalition with the two other opposition parties to try to replace the Conservative government.
As political rhetoric heats up and the country increasingly appears on track for an election later this year, the Liberals and Conservatives have squared off over the inflammatory coalition concept -- an idea that won little public support when it was originally aired last December.
"Let me be very clear. The Liberal Party would not agree to a coalition," leader Michael Ignatieff told a Friday news conference, which was supposed to be about employment insurance but in which he concentrated on squelching the coalition idea.
The Liberals signed a pact with the left-leaning New Democratic Party and separatist Bloc Quebecois late last year in a bid to topple the minority Conservative government -- which they charged was doing too little to battle the recession -- and seek to install a coalition.
It was a move that Ignatieff supported at the time, but it proved highly unpopular with voters so soon after the October general election.
On Friday, however, Ignatieff said Canadians should look at the fact that he did not follow through with the idea when he had a chance in January.
"I have a certain credibility on the coalition issue. I could be standing here as the prime minister of Canada. I turned it down. We turned it down in January," he said.
"I don't think I have to give further proof of my feeling that that's not what Canadians want. I agree with Canadians."
Public opinion was indeed so strongly against the idea that Prime Minister Stephen Harper's Conservatives would likely have won a landslide victory if an election had been held then.
At the time, the Conservatives led in opinion polls by as much as 20 percentage points, whereas now they are only 3 to 5 points up on the Liberals.
Harper told a party gathering last week that the Liberals would deny it but he argued they would resurrect the coalition idea unless the Conservatives won a majority of seats in the House of Commons.
On Friday, Transport Minister John Baird kept up the Conservatives' attack saying of Ignatieff: "He said publicly that he was prepared to lead a coalition as prime minister."
Ignatieff said on Friday he was willing to work with other parties without forming a formal coalition, and pointed to minority Liberal governments in the 1960s and 1970s that were productive by doing that.
"I know very well how to make something work in a minority situation without forming a coalition," he said.
The Liberals have indicated that they would try to bring the government down at the first opportunity after Parliament resumes, but they would need the support of both the smaller opposition parties to defeat the Conservatives.
The Conservatives won last October's election with a strengthened minority in the House of Commons, but must rely on the support of at least one other party to stay in power.
The government may face a confidence test in Parliament next week if it introduces a budgetary motion, but it has not said whether it would do so. In any case, the Liberals are guaranteed a day to present a non-confidence motion between October 1 and 7.
If the Bloc and the NDP back that, Canada would see an election on November 9 or 16 -- its fourth in just over five years.
Additional reporting by David Ljunggren; editing by Rob Wilson