By resigning his position as principal secretary to Justin Trudeau amid allegations of political interference in the judicial file of the engineering firm SNC-Lavalin, Gerald Butts, the prime minister’s longtime friend and alter ego, may hope to deflect the potentially lethal friendly fire that is headed straight for Trudeau.
Butts was the official who had the most dealings with former attorney general Jody Wilson-Raybould over her time in the cabinet. As he noted in his resignation statement, he recruited her to federal politics.
Those dealings included discussions of the SNC-Lavalin file. Sources say Butts was already in Wilson-Raybould’s crosshairs when she talked with Trudeau hours before she resigned from the cabinet last week.
But based on his categorical assertion that he never crossed into interference territory in his conversations with Wilson-Raybould, Butts may end up only having taken himself out of the direct line of fire.
The sight of PMO blood in the water is unlikely to distract the opposition parties from the main prey that is the prime minister himself. Stephen Harper who abruptly lost chief of staff Nigel Wright over the Senate spending scandal can testify to that.
Those who believe Trudeau sanctioned a plan to try to force Wilson-Raybould to spare SNC-Lavalin a criminal trial that could have negative consequences for its commercial future by offering it a remediation agreement will find validation in his principal secretary’s resignation.
And while no one is irreplaceable losing a central player such as Butts on the eve of a re-election campaign stands to compound the damage to the Liberals.
For even before it became a political hurricane the timing of this crisis had already made it a perfect storm.
It is not just that it will be hard for the government to shovel itself out of this latest hole if Wilson-Raybould — as most expect notwithstanding Butts’ decision to leave — does bury Trudeau in allegations of political interference.
If it comes down to a choice between his word and that of the former justice minister, there is no guarantee the prime minister will come out as the more credible.
At this juncture, many voters — including some who supported the Liberals in the last election — are already preconditioned to believe Wilson-Raybould’s version over anyone else’s. Over the past week, Trudeau had a big hand in that preconditioning.
Since the Globe and Mail broke the story each of his interventions has added fuel to the fire he was trying to put down.
With the House of Commons reopening Tuesday after a weeklong pause, there is little left of Trudeau’s initial denial but still no convincing or consistent government interpretation of the events that have, over the adjournment, led the former attorney-general to leave the cabinet and lawyer up and the prime minister’s right-hand man to resign.
The latest developments on the PMO front only add a new twist to an already confused plot.
Up until the political interference allegations surfaced 10 days ago, the upcoming general election looked like Trudeau’s to lose.
But now it has become easier to trace a path to defeat for the ruling Liberals than at any time since they took office in 2015.
Which in a roundabout way brings one to NDP leader Jagmeet Singh’s future. By now, his victory in next Monday’s Burnaby South by-election should be a foregone conclusion.
If Singh can’t win in a relatively safe NDP riding that happens to be located at ground zero of the movement against the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion and after a campaign whose last stretch is unfolding against the backdrop of the worst crisis in Trudeau’s tenure, he truly is a lost cause. (To a lesser degree the same could be said of Outremont, the other NDP riding in play next week.)
Chances are the ranks of the Liberals who are rooting for Singh in Monday’s vote in the belief that his so far unimpressive leadership will help drive support their way next fall have swelled over the past week.
For many of the progressive voters who are turned off by Trudeau’s evasive explanations or unhappy over his treatment of a leading Indigenous female minister or repelled by the notion that the government may have sought to cut a deal with a well-connected firm with a dismal ethical record, turning to the Conservatives is not necessarily an option.
At the rate that the prime minister has been losing control of the SNC-Lavalin narrative and with collateral damage spreading to the highest levels of his own office, all that may keep Trudeau from leading his party back to opposition next fall is a weak NDP.
Chantal Hébert is a columnist based in Ottawa covering politics. Follow her on Twitter: @ChantalHbert