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With Trudeau on the ropes, Liberals contemplate the next election with hope and anxiety

Justin Trudeau keeps saying he wants to stay and fight the next election against Pierre Poilievre. But his leadership could be put to the test in next week's byelection in Toronto-St. Paul's. And his MPs are wavering between resignation and enthusiasm.

Many Liberal MPs tell Radio-Canada Justin Trudeau should stay on as leader, but some say it's time to go

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau attends a United Way conference in Ottawa on Tuesday, June 18, 2024.

In Justin Trudeau's inner circle, there is no doubt about it — the prime minister will lead his party into what promises to be a hard-fought election battle against Pierre Poilievre and the Conservatives in 2025.

He says he wants to defend his vision of the country. He feels his legacy is under threat. He considered stepping down during his marriage difficulties last year, but decided to stay.

"I just realized, that's not me. There is so much to do still," he said during a recent episode of the ReThinking podcast.

The polls are not good for the Liberals — in fact, they're struggling to overcome the 15 to 20-point gap that separates them from the Conservatives. But those close to the prime minister like to point out that their leader is used to being underestimated and performs well under pressure.

But in the halls of Parliament, many Liberals are worried.

"Several MPs from the Greater Toronto Area are afraid of losing their seats," one Ontario elected official said. The official requested confidentiality to speak more freely.

Some MPs said they find it hard to believe Trudeau is capable of turning things around and believe a change of leadership is necessary.

"We would be better off changing leaders for the good of our country," one Liberal MP said, adding that he has a lot of respect for Trudeau and what he has accomplished.

He fears, however, that Trudeau's unpopularity will act as a drag on his party. The MP added that public weariness with Trudeau's leadership has reached a point of no return.

"Tomorrow morning, if we saw Justin Trudeau jump into a river to save two children being chased by a crocodile, people would say it was his fault," the MP said.

WATCH | 'Canadians are not in a decision mode right now,' Trudeau says

‘Canadians are not in a decision mode right now,’ Trudeau says amid polls about him

3 days ago

Duration 1:27

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says Canadians 'are pragmatic people who focus on solutions' when asked by CBC’s Power and Politics host David Cochrane about polls suggesting Canadians' frustrations with him and the prospects of losing to Pierre Poilievre and the Conservatives in the next federal election.

"If he doesn't leave on his own, I will be disappointed."

Another elected official, who said he is undecided about Trudeau's future, compared the political atmosphere to the final months of Kathleen Wynne's time as premier of Ontario before her crushing defeat by Doug Ford in 2018.

"Whatever Ms. Wynne said, it just didn't stick," the MP said.

Radio-Canada has spoken with more than 25 Liberal MPs from different parts of the country in recent weeks. Most of them say Trudeau should stay; they argue he remains an excellent campaigner, while Poilevre has not yet been tested.

"Justin Trudeau is the best campaigner I've seen in my life," Tourism Minister Soraya Martinez Ferrada said on Wednesday. "I'm convinced that he will go meet with Canadians and that he will convince them to trust us."

"Justin Trudeau is our leader," Heritage Minister Pascale St-Onge said. "He was there with all Canadians, to help them get through the difficult times in recent years."

But six MPs who spoke to Radio-Canada said they believe it's time for Trudeau to bow out, even if it means taking the risk of hitting the campaign trail with a brand new leader.

One MP said that within the Liberal caucus, there are MPs who are "energized" and others who are "resigned."

Five other elected Liberals Radio-Canada spoke with are undecided; they say they're contemplating both the advantages and disadvantages of having Trudeau at the helm for a fourth election.

That's the case for Alexandra Mendès, who represents the Quebec riding of Brossard—Saint-Lambert.

She said Trudeau is a good leader with a lot of experience, and there's no emerging figure to replace him. But at the same time, she notices the public's weariness.

"At the doors, the question of the boss often comes up," she said. "I bring up all of our successes since 2015, but we can't deny it either … It's true that our leader is not popular. Some people think that we should change."

Even those who think Trudeau should stay expect a tough battle in 2025.

"The election risks being more difficult than in 2021 for the Liberals," said Marc Serré, the MP for Nickel Belt in northern Ontario.

Is a new leader needed? Serré responded without hesitation: "It's too late to change the leader."

The test of Toronto-St. Paul's

Should he stay or should he go? The byelection in Toronto-St. Paul's could end up deciding the question for Trudeau.

This riding in the heart of Toronto was vacated when Carolyn Bennett, a former cabinet minister, resigned her seat. It's considered a Liberal stronghold but polling suggests the race with the Conservatives is close.

"If Justin Trudeau loses Toronto-St. Paul's, I don't see how he can stay on as leader," one high-ranking Liberal MP said.

"It would hurt a lot," said a cabinet minister.

To avoid defeat, the Liberals have pulled out all the stops in Toronto-St. Paul's by sending nearly 20 cabinet ministers to campaign alongside their candidate, Leslie Church, a former chief of staff to Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland. The Conservative candidate is Don Stewart.

"The Liberals are still likely the favourites, but not a 15 to 20-point win … something maybe closer to just a few points," said Abacus Data CEO David Coletto. He said even a narrow Liberal victory could raise questions about Trudeau's leadership.

"Not all byelections matter. Not all have national consequences," he said. "But I suspect that a lot of Liberals MPs are watching closely how this result turns out, as perhaps an indicator of whether the prime minister can pull the party back up to contention with the Conservatives."

The absence of an obvious replacement

What makes the situation particularly difficult for concerned Liberals is the lack of a clear alternative to Trudeau.

"If there were an heir, this would have been resolved a long time ago," one Liberal MP said.

A few names are circulating behind the scenes but there's no sign of a clear challenger, as there was when Paul Martin pushed to succeed Jean Chretien as prime minister in 2003.

One name surfaces regularly in conversations about the Liberal leadership: Mark Carney. The former governor of the Bank of Canada has stepped up his appearances at partisan events in recent weeks; he was Westmount MP Anna Gainey's special guest for a fundraising event in May.

A few weeks later, he was the guest host of a cocktail reception fundraiser for Ontario Liberal Leader Bonnie Crombie.

I truly appreciate the community coming out in support of our event yesterday. Thank you, <a href="https://twitter.com/MarkJCarney?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@MarkJCarney</a>, for coming to <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/NDGWestmount?src=hash&amp;ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#NDGWestmount</a> and thank you to everybody who was there. <a href="https://t.co/SiRPQ7gbzP">pic.twitter.com/SiRPQ7gbzP</a>

&mdash;@annamgainey

"He's interested in serving," said former justice minister David Lametti, a friend of Carney's for about 30 years.

He said the former banker "could make a remarkable contribution as leader" but insisted that his praise for Carney is not a call for Trudeau to resign.

Sources also told Radio-Canada and CBC News that the Prime Minister's Office, the Liberal Party and Carney have had discussions about possible ways for him to obtain a seat.

According to sources, Carney is receiving advice from Gerald Butts, Trudeau's former right-hand man, and Canada 2020 executive chair Tom Pitfield, who remains very close to the prime minister.

Other potential successors often mentioned in Liberal circles include Chrystia Freeland, Melanie Joly, Francois-Philippe Champagne, Anita Anand and Sean Fraser, all cabinet ministers.

Rumours concerning Dominic LeBlanc's interest in running were also reported in the Globe and Mail earlier this year. LeBlanc is a longtime friend of the prime minister.

After that story was published, several MPs approached LeBlanc, who represents the riding of Beauséjour in New Brunswick, to express their support.

"Dominic LeBlanc is the only non-woke candidate that could give Pierre Poilievre a run for his money," one Ontario Liberal MP told Radio-Canada.

But none of the ministers mentioned have indicated they intend to push Trudeau out. Neither has Carney. The consensus in Liberal ranks is quite clear: if the prime minister leaves, it will be his decision.

Former Conservative strategist Yan Plante says that's the right way to approach the question.

"When you have won three elections with a party, you earn the right to decide when to leave," he said.

He points out that Stephen Harper, whom he advised, faced the same kinds of questions before the 2015 election.

"In the end, Mr. Harper realized that he was the best candidate for the party, if not to win, at least to save the furniture," he said. "That's why he stayed."

Many Liberals say this summer represents Trudeau's last chance to make an exit before the next election.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Laurence Martin

Laurence Martin

Laurence Martin is a parliamentary correspondent with Radio-Canada in Ottawa.

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