MONTREAL—Justin Trudeau was damaged goods before Treasury Board President Jane Philpott followed her friend and former colleague Jody Wilson-Raybould out of his cabinet.
It is far from certain that he can recover from this latest blow to his moral authority and repair his reputation as a competent prime minister in time for the election.
For a government leader to lose one leading minister to a battle of wills is unfortunate but usually manageable. To lose two over the same crisis is both extremely rare and potentially politically fatal. It certainly screams ineptitude at crisis management on the part of a prime minister.
With Philpott’s resignation — offered in support of Wilson-Raybould — the SNC-Lavalin affair enters a new lethal phase for the prime minister. Until further notice, all bets are off as to its outcome.
Until late Monday, most Liberals believed that now that Wilson-Raybould had laid her cards on the table and described what she called sustained attempts of high-level political interference in the legal handling of SNC-Lavalin’s legal file, the worst was behind them.
Yes, Philpott was Wilson-Raybould’s closest cabinet ally.
They initially worked together on the medically assisted death legislation and subsequently on the Indigenous file.
Over the past three years, both have butted heads with the PMO over various files. There is no doubt that they have often compared notes.
And yes, there are probably not enough fans of the ex-attorney general left at the cabinet table for this latest resignation to be the start of a chain reaction.
But the former treasury board president was also widely considered both one of the top performers in the Liberal cabinet and one of the government’s steadiest hands. She is a popular member of the Liberal caucus. Like the former attorney general, she plans to remain in that caucus.
Both may well believe they will outlive Trudeau’s leadership. Monday’s events make that more plausible.
Philpott did not have a dog in the Wilson-Raybould/Trudeau battle over whether to offer SNC-Lavalin a negotiated plea in lieu of a criminal trial.
In her resignation letter she wrote that she was leaving because in conscience and even in the name of cabinet solidarity, she could not stand behind the prime minister.
A lot of voters will be tempted to set their watches in the SNC-Lavalin saga on this moment when in her judgment Trudeau’s actions were indefensible.
It is not as if the prime minister has so far offered the electorate much to chew on in his own defence. If he was waiting for his government to be on the brink of implosion before rising to the challenge of making his case in the SNC-Lavalin matter, Trudeau now has his work cut out for him.
This crisis is entering its fourth week and every single one of them has featured an escalation that has brought it closer to the point of no return for the government, or at least for its current leader.
Over that time, Canadians have caught glimpses of their prime minister with each of his appearances managing to make things if not worse, at least not much better.
Trudeau spent the first week climbing down from a total denial of what were then anonymous allegations of political interference in the judicial file of the engineering firm.
Since Wilson-Raybould put her name to those allegations — and presented documentation to back up her claim — Trudeau still has offered little more than boilerplate statements to counter her narrative.
It has been as if he did not believe voters were worthy of a substantial explanation from the mouth of their prime minister.
This is the biggest crisis of Trudeau’s tenure and Canadians should probably be thankful that the issue at its epicentre is not a very complex one.
At the end of the day, the consequences of mismanaging the SNC-Lavalin affair are ultimately most damaging for the government itself.
The same ineptitude applied to a unity crisis of the kind Jean Chrétien faced after he nearly lost the 1995 Quebec referendum, or to a global financial crisis like the one Stephen Harper had to navigate Canada through in 2008, would have resulted in more than damage to the Liberal brand.
If Trudeau still wants to be prime minister; if he wants his Liberal party to have a fighting chance at re-election with him as leader this fall, he’s going to have to raise his game awfully fast. It is not clear from his conduct over the past three weeks that he can.
Chantal Hébert is a columnist based in Ottawa covering politics. Follow her on Twitter: @ChantalHbert