Should Justin Trudeau stay or should he go?
Somewhere, there exists a grainy, low-quality video fragment of a conversation between Sophie Gregoire and Justin Trudeau. I can’t pinpoint the video’s age, but I suspect it harks back to Trudeau’s pre-prime ministerial days. Perhaps it dates back to the charity announcement when he vowed to fight Patrick Brazeau, the Indigenous Conservative senator.
In the video, the couple stands amidst a crowd at what appears to be a reception. The surreptitious recording, likely captured on a phone from just a few feet away, shows Sophie imploring Justin to “be humble.” His response, delivered in a whiny voice carrying the intimacy of a close relationship, is anything but humble. He replies, “But darling, this is what I do. I fight and I win. I was born to win.” Some of you might have seen the exchange; regrettably, I couldn’t locate a copy to link here.
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This conversation snippet springs to mind when contemplating whether Justin will contest the next election or bow out before it arrives. Justin exudes the hubris of a messianic figure, thriving in adversity because he believes destiny has marked him. Yet, he also possesses the traits of a classic narcissistic personality (these qualities aren’t mutually exclusive), and narcissists grow restless and disheartened when they perceive insufficient adoration. Not being the centre of adoration unsettles them, and without delving into psychology without a license, I’ll assert that Justin appears unsettled lately.
His recent trip to India for the G20 displayed a taciturn man: withdrawn, uncommitted, and perhaps even bored. His body language conveyed seclusion, almost a retreat. He sat in rigid postures, his jacket buttoned while seated, appearing somewhat frumpy, even though his flashy socks remained perfectly matched. He seemed out of his element.
The G20’s outcome was disastrous, and although a broken plane was an unfortunate addition, that wasn’t the worst of it. Unilaterally suspending trade talks with India without explanation a week before the summit, he must have anticipated a lacklustre outcome. He couldn’t have expected much. Yet he went, seemingly because staying home would have been even worse (Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping were no-shows). The G20 summit overlapped with the Tory policy convention in Quebec City, where Pierre Poilievre basked in his party’s admiration. Escaping Dodge, even if only marginally, was Justin’s better option.
Following the announcement of his separation from Sophie, Justin appears to be in a sombre state, striving excessively to project himself as a model single parent in a flurry of published photos with his children – even though both parents requested privacy for them.
In this light, there are compelling reasons for him to remain in office. Pride, which may prevent him from quitting, seems to be the primary factor. He won’t shy away from a confrontation with Poilievre, whom he regards as a lesser rival. As long as he can keep Jagmeet Singh on his side, there’s time to pull off another victory before the next election in two years. And Singh isn’t in a hurry to trigger an election, given his party’s significant debt and, in his desire to be eligible for a parliamentary pension, he must hand on at least until February 25 next year.
Justin might believe he can replicate his 2021 triumph over Erin O’Toole, defying the odds and taking it to the wire. If he does decide to stay and fight, the battle will undoubtedly become more acrimonious.
If hubris compels him to stay, it can also influence his decision to depart. He may wish to avoid the humiliation of losing in an upcoming election. In a self-preservation calculation, he might choose to leave while he’s down in the polls but still viewed as a victor. Granting the prairie commoner, Poilievre, the satisfaction of defeating him isn’t his foremost desire.
Like his father, Justin could exit early, allowing the party time to rebound, as Mulroney did after Pierre Trudeau. The parallel with Mulroney’s era could be eerily similar if the Liberal Party selected someone like Freeland or another female to succeed him. However, whether the Liberals choose a future Kim Campbell or a future John Turner, the final outcome is likely to closely mirror these examples.
Will he stay or will he go, then? Three potential scenarios emerge:
- The polls continue to deteriorate for Justin, prompting his departure or forcing him out before the next election.
- The polls continue to decline, but Justin decides to remain and contest the election, ultimately losing.
- The polls stabilize and improve leading up to the next election, and Justin secures a coveted fourth victory.
I don’t foresee a significant improvement in Justin’s poll numbers from this point onward. Hiss approval rating has plummeted to its lowest point since he assumed office in 2015.
Immediately after his official separation from Sophie, I thought he would stay. They went on vacation together shortly after the announcement, suggesting they could make it work. But so much of Justin’s life appears orchestrated for appearances. Who can distinguish between what’s real and what’s not? Sometimes, I wonder if he himself can make that distinction.
However, after the India trip, I suspect he’ll opt to leave. When will he announce it? I can’t predict the exact timing, but it seems he has lost the inclination to continue. Perhaps it’s merely due to a challenging week he has had, but with the Lich-Barber Freedom Convoy trial underway and the Public Inquiry on Foreign Interference about to commence, things are about to get even more arduous. He’s about to face a worried caucus, and has no plan. Then again, he has prevailed in worse moments.
While the caucus partisans may not perceive his performance in India as further alienating such a critical ally, they certainly can’t ignore the persistent decline in the polls, for which no recovery appears in sight. Many in the caucus will be concerned about their seats, and some may transition from anxiety to defiance.
The narrative may have turned against Justin, making it exceedingly challenging to reverse the popularity tide. The caucus is already divided between those who believe he remains their best option when considering alternative leaders and those who anticipate an electoral slaughter if he persists. The latter are largely silent.
In the end, once and if Justin grasps that popular sentiment is unlikely to shift in his favour, he may recognize that it’s better to leave office badly disliked but undefeated than to depart terribly disliked and also defeated. This realization will probably feed his current despondency, distraction, and inability to focus.
If Justin chooses to step down, don’t expect it to be next week, however. The polls will have to be worse than they are for him to leave the best job he will ever have. In the meantime, he’s going to stay, fight and drag his party further down the pit of popularity.
Marco Navarro-Génie is a senior fellow at the Frontier Centre and founding president of the Haultain Research Institute. He is co-author, with Barry Cooper, of Canada’s COVID-19: The History of a Pandemic Moral Panic.
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