OTTAWA - Michael Ignatieff has secured the federal Liberal leadership without a single vote being cast after his last remaining rival, longtime friend Bob Rae, bowed out of the contest.
Rae informed his supporters of his decision during a conference call early Tuesday.
The move came just hours after the Liberal national executive rejected Rae's plea to find a faster way of giving all party members a vote for Stephane Dion's replacement.
Rae gave his supporters an advance peek at the statement he intends to release, in which he said he still believes an open process would have been "a vital and healthy process for the party."
But he vowed to accept the party's choice "without rancour or undue disappointment."
"I offer my full and unqualified support to Michael, a friend and colleague of 40 years standing. I call on all my friends and supporters to do the same," Rae said.
"There are many who will be deeply disappointed with this decision and indeed troubled with what has happened. But I ask them to recognize that we cannot always control the flow of events and that our own interests and ambitions are much less important than the public interest of the Liberal party and the country."
Rae said Liberals must pull together to fight Stephen Harper's Conservatives.
"The Liberal party has known too much division in the past and I have no intention of pursuing a course that would hurt the party."
Rae's decision clears the way for Ignatieff to be acclaimed as the party's interim leader on Dec. 17, after the party goes through a limited consultation process determined by the national executive late Monday.
Ignatieff, a Toronto MP and former Harvard academic, will then be acclaimed as the permanent leader at the party's previously scheduled leadership convention in May in Vancouver.
Rae had been under considerable pressure to get out of Ignatieff's way and allow the party to quickly install a new leader well before a potential parliamentary showdown over the Jan. 27 federal budget.
The budget vote could plunge the country into another election or see the Liberals attempt to replace Harper's Conservatives with a Grit-NDP coalition, propped up by the Bloc Quebecois.
The pressure on Rae mounted Monday when Dion, who had intended to hang on until May, called for an accelerated process and vowed to resign as soon as a successor was chosen. It increased further when long-shot leadership contender Dominic LeBlanc bowed out of the race and threw his support to Ignatieff.
Ignatieff's camp was pushing to have Dion's replacement chosen by the national executive after consulting strictly with Liberal MPs and senators at a caucus meeting Wednesday. Ignatieff enjoys the lion's share of support among caucus members.
But under pressure from Rae and grassroots members angry about having no say in the choice of leader, the executive agreed late Monday to expand the consultation to about 800 Liberals, including riding presidents and defeated candidates.
Rae's camp concluded that the relatively elite group of Liberals would predominantly favour Ignatieff and that there was no point in Rae forcing a showdown under those conditions.
Although Rae urged his supporters to accept the decision without rancour, some are privately irate about what they see as an Ignatieff putsch.