Michael Ignatieff – the former Harvard scholar, author and television presenter – was set to take the helm of Canada’s opposition Liberals in a party caucus vote on Wednesday after his two rivals dropped out.
Mr Ignatieff faces the challenge of reviving and uniting a party that had a stranglehold on power for much of the 20th century but have been dogged in recent years by weak leadership, disunity and financial problems.
Despite hailing from a political family – his father was a Canadian ambassador to the United Nations, and his grandfather a minister under Tsar Nicholas II of Russia – Mr Ignatieff’s entry to politics has not always been easy.
He returned to Canada three years ago after spending most of his life in the US and abroad, and political opponents have labelled him an interloper. His career before then ranged from journalism to a spell as director of Harvard’s Centre for Human Rights Policy, and he was short-listed for the 1993 Booker Prize for his novel Scar Tissue.
With a reputation for not suffering fools gladly, colleagues pull his leg for using words of three or four syllables when one will do.
But the Liberals have high hopes Mr Ignatieff, 61, will bring the same panache and intellectual heft to the party as Pierre Trudeau, Canada’s prime minister during the 1970s and early 1990s.
“Michael is not a politics-as-usual type of person,” Scott Brison, the party’s finance spokesman, said. “He has a real thirst for ideas.”
He is expected to find a way of dissolving a contentious deal between his predecessor, Stéphane Dion, and the left-leaning New Democrats, with support from the separatist Bloc Québécois, to bring down the minority Conservative government.
Stephen Harper, the Conservative prime minister, asked the governor-general last week to prorogue parliament until January 26 after it appeared his government would be defeated in a no-confidence vote by the nascent Liberal-NDP coalition.
Mr Dion was due to step down after a convention to choose his successor next spring. But Mr Harper’s decision to suspend parliament increased pressure on Mr Dion to leave sooner and he announced on Monday that he would step down as soon as a new leader was chosen.
Mr Ignatieff has taken a lukewarm view of the coalition with the New Democrats, making it unlikely he will seek to bring down the government over the budget.