OTTAWA - Conservatives found themselves cringing once again Monday at the ramblings of caucus colleague Rob Anders — this time a brazen suggestion that an ambitious NDP Leader Tom Mulcair helped hasten the death of predecessor Jack Layton.
The Calgary MP — known on Parliament Hill for occasionally saying or doing something that leaves people shaking their heads — dropped a whopper in an interview published Monday by political news website iPolitics.
"I actually think one of the great stories that was missed by journalists was that Mr. Mulcair, with his arm twisted behind the scenes, helped to hasten Jack Layton’s death," Anders was quoted by iPolitics as saying.
"It was very clear to me, watching the two of those gentlemen in the front benches, that Jack Layton was ill and that Mr. Mulcair was making it quite obvious that if Jack wasn’t well enough to fight the campaign and fight the election that he should step aside," he continued.
"Because of that, Mr. Layton put his life at risk to go into the national election, and fight it, and did obviously an amazing job considering his state of health, and that he did that partly because of the arm-twisting behind the scenes by Mulcair and then subsequently died."
The reaction was swift and unequivocal.
"If I was (Prime Minister Stephen) Harper, he would be gone out of the Conservative party in a heartbeat," said Nova Scotia NDP MP Peter Stoffer, who also described Anders in decidedly unparliamentary — and unprintable — language.
"With that kind of attitude, and that kind of comment, that is a disgrace, not only to Mr. Mulcair but to the legacy of Mr. Layton. And think of how Olivia Chow must feel. That's just absolutely cold-hearted."
Anders quickly issued a written apology for what he described as his "insensitive and inconsiderate" remarks, and Chow — Layton's widow — said she accepted it.
But she was the only one.
Added Manitoba MP Pat Martin, never one to pull his rhetorical punches: "I always used to wonder whether there was anything rattling around between that guy's ears and I guess now we know — and it's not pretty."
Harper's office was quick to insist the comments did not reflect the views of Harper or the government.
"To be clear, Mr. Anders' comments regarding Jack Layton in no way represent the views of @pmharper or the government," tweeted Andrew MacDougall, Harper's director of communications.
In the interview, Anders said Mulcair argued before the campaign that Layton should step aside because of his health.
He said that "arm-twisting" compelled Layton to "put his life at risk" in a hard-fought election campaign, when otherwise he might have been more mindful of his health.
In accepting his apology, Chow calmly urged everyone to just move on, although she encouraged Anders to sponsor her on a prostate cancer run later this month.
"There's nothing I wouldn't do to make Jack live longer," she said. "Cancer is unpredictable, it is vicious and it kills. Let's put aside the theories and let's work for a cure to cancer.
"Unity and loyalty are in the DNA of the New Democrats. Like all the other NDP members of Parliament, Tom Mulcair loved Jack. We'd rather put all our energy into fighting for a better world, a better Canada and not stab each other in the back."
Conservative MPs entering the Commons for question period Monday refused to comment on Anders, who's earned a reputation for embarrassing the government.
Indeed, unlike other members of the Conservative caucus, he's never shied away from expressing his views on a number of issues.
Anders opposed honorary Canadian citizenship for Nelson Mandela, labelling him a communist and a terrorist.
He is vitriolic in his dislike of China. He once compared the 2008 Beijing Olympics to the 1936 Berlin Games.
And earlier this year, Anders was dropped from the Commons veterans affairs committee after he lashed out against a veterans support group which had criticized him for falling asleep during a committee meeting.
He later apologized for saying his critics were NDP "hacks."
Nor was that the first time Anders landed in hot water after nodding off. A video of the MP dozing in the Commons just over a year ago went viral. He blamed the snooze on the aftermath of a car accident.
Anders was first elected in 1997 and despite his outspoken habits, has been re-elected five times, winning with huge margins each time.