Who stays and who goes? Liberals face an ultimatum

Jane Philpott and Jody Wilson-Raybould have declared war on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. There is no other way to characterize the actions of his two former cabinet ministers.

One way or another, they want him gone.

That is what is meant by the very public declarations of former attorney general Wilson-Raybould and former Treasury Board president Philpott that they no longer have confidence in Trudeau’s government.

In particular, they no longer have confidence in his government’s handling of the SNC-Lavalin affair

“I have lost confidence in how the government has dealt with this matter,” Philpott wrote in her resignation letter Monday.

“I resigned from cabinet because I did not have confidence to sit around the table, the cabinet table,” Wilson-Raybould told the Commons justice committee last week.

In a parliamentary democracy like Canada, confidence means everything. A government has the right to govern only when it commands the confidence of a majority of elected MPs. If that majority loses confidence in the prime minister of the day, he or she has no choice but to resign. So when Philpott and Wilson-Raybould openly and publicly announce that they have lost confidence in Trudeau’s government, they are saying that, in their view, he can no longer carry on as prime minister.

They are saying that the Liberal Party, to which both insist they still belong, should choose a new leader.

Failing that, they are saying that they can no longer fully support the Liberal government in the Commons.

That is why these particular resignations are so significant.

Cabinet resignations are not uncommon. Longtime Liberal Paul Hellyer quit the cabinet of Pierre Trudeau in 1969 over a housing policy dispute. But the maverick MP, who eventually founded his own party, did not try to unseat Trudeau at the time.

Paul Martin famously quit Jean Chrétien’s cabinet in 2002. But Martin did not issue a manifesto announcing that he had lost confidence in Chretien’s Liberal government. Instead, he organized support within the Liberal Party so he could become leader and prime minister whenever Chrétien chose to step down.

In terms of gravity, perhaps the closest analogy to today’s events was Lucien Bouchard’s 1990 break with Brian Mulroney’s Conservative government over its handling of the Quebec constitutional issue. Bouchard said openly that he had lost confidence in the Mulroney Tories. Indeed, he founded a new party, the Bloc Québécois, that successfully took them on.

Wilson-Raybould and Philpott are not talking of a new party. In fact, both insist that they remain Liberals and will run as Liberals, in the October election.

How they can stay in the Liberal caucus when they have no confidence in the Liberal government is unclear. They haven’t answered that question and neither has the prime minister.

Speaking in Toronto Monday evening, Trudeau praised what he called the diversity of views within his cabinet and caucus. But he didn’t explain what he would do when these diverse views threatened the very legitimacy of his government.

Certainly, Wilson-Raybould has been playing hardball. The former justice minister skilfully used peek-a-boo media appearances to make clear that she had something important to say if only Trudeau would let her talk.

As well, she timed announcements, such as her decision to quit cabinet, strategically and for maximum effect.

Her testimony before the justice committee showed the prime minister no mercy. She chose not to give him the benefit of the doubt when he noted, correctly, that as a Montreal MP he has a legitimate interest in what happens to a major local employer such as SNC-Lavalin. Instead, she accused him of political interference.

Philpott is no political amateur either. Her resignation announcement has upstaged the planned appearance Wednesday of Trudeau defender and former principal secretary Gerald Butts at the justice committee – and kept the story at a boil.

In the end, something will have to give. If these two powerful figures have no confidence in Trudeau then either they will have to leave the Liberal caucus or he will have to step down as prime minister.

I see no way to finesse this stark choice.

Thomas Walkom is a columnist with Torstar Syndication Services.

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