The resignation of Treasury Secretary Jane Philpott has put Justin Trudeau’s government on the ropes. It has shortened his political life expectancy to days, if not hours.
When you appoint a half-female cabinet “because it’s 2015,” you serve at that cabinet’s pleasure. Losing Jody Wilson-Raybould and Philpott amounts to being fired.
It’s ironic that the Liberals were gradually forced to go from claiming no pressure on Wilson-Raybould over SNC-Lavalin to admitting reasonable pressure and then effectively maintaining “that’s politics.” Now her testimony to the justice committee last week, plus Philpott’s resignation have shown Trudeau, the Prime Minister’s Office and the remaining cabinet what real pressure is — the kind that triggers nuclear detonations.
The Liberal caucus, and especially the cabinet, must now consider their individual and collective survival. Is it worth hanging in for the hope of re-election in October as part of a Liberal rump returned to third-party status? Or is this the time to bail out and pull the ripcord?
A furious, frightened caucus
The old pros like Ralph Goodale must be livid. They kept the faith during the Harper years. Trudeau had pulled them back from the brink of oblivion and given them a third act. Now he was dragging them back to the brink, just for conducting Liberal business as usual.
And what about the consciously diverse cabinet, Sikhs like Harjit Sajjan and Navdeep Bains, Somali immigrant Ahmed Hassan and Afghan-Iranian Maryam Monsef? They must feel they’ve been led down the garden path.
And so must the other women in cabinet: serious heavy hitters like Chrystia Freeland, Carolyn Bennett and Catherine McKenna must wonder why they’re still in cabinet. They can foresee everything they’ve worked for not only stalled but reversed if the Conservatives take power next fall.
The people on the backbenches must be frightened and furious. Terry Beech, the Liberal MP for Burnaby North-Seymour, won in 2015 as a cautious opponent of the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion that would put his riding at risk. Trudeau overrode him, and he took his lumps. Now he’s got to run for re-election with not one but two millstones around his neck — the pipeline and his boss.
If the Liberals’ core values mean as much to them as they evidently do to Wilson-Raybould and Philpott, they must also think about how to save their party. Trudeau and his PMO do not seem to be part of the rescue operation.
The Australians and Brits deal with this problem by a caucus ouster of their prime minister. Our own MPs seem too over-whipped for this drastic measure, and Trudeau has not designated a deputy prime minister. Still, he could resign with a strong recommendation for an interim prime minister chosen by caucus while the Liberals organize a new leadership convention for sometime in early 2020.
Just another bullshitter in a nice suit
Wilson-Raybould and Philpott are still in the party, and still planning to run for re-election in October. Any opposition party would burst into tears of gratitude if they crossed the floor, but if either stayed in the Liberal party as leader through a grim election, she could turn a rout into a fighting retreat — hanging on to women, Indigenous voters, and many others just tired of bullshitters in suits.
It would be a tough four years against Andrew Scheer’s Conservatives, whether as Official Opposition or as third party, but Scheer and NDP leader Jagmeet Singh would both have to raise their games to match either woman. One misstep, and either guy would look like just another politician, dimples or beard notwithstanding.
Justin Trudeau could conceivably make a comeback as his dad did in 1980 after Joe Clark stupidly lost a confidence vote and triggered a new election. But Pierre Trudeau was an extraordinary politician, brilliant within his limits. His son Justin looks more and more like a regression to the mean, a nice guy with influential friends but still just another ordinary good-looking bullshitter in a suit.
We can expect Scheer’s Conservatives, Singh’s New Democrats, Elizabeth May’s Greens, and Maxime Bernier’s People’s Party to attack the Liberals on all flanks, knowing Trudeau is horribly weakened. Some of them may expose their own weaknesses, or turn on one another in a feeding frenzy. But the likeliest outcome in October will be a Conservative return to power with an NDP and Green opposition. That offers the prospect of a Harper-Lite government until 2023, with overtones of Doug Ford’s style of suited-bullshit conservatism. That prospect might be the Liberals’ only hope for salvation.
It’s an old maxim that when you strike at the king, you must strike to kill. Wilson-Raybould and Philpott have inflicted grievous wounds, and more may come at any moment.
Trudeau, like his father, needs to take a walk in the snow some night this week, and then step aside. He has one chance to save the Liberal party, by putting it in the hands of the women who stood their ground.