Peter MacKay, one of the chief architects of the Conservative Party, is quitting federal politics – a further erosion in the bench strength of the Tories as Prime Minister Stephen Harper seeks a rare fourth consecutive term in office.
Mr. Harper joined Mr. MacKay at his retirement announcement on Friday in Nova Scotia – an apparent effort to frame this as an amicable exit rather than an abrupt departure only months before the federal election campaign expected this fall.
The Prime Minister bid farewell to Mr. MacKay with "more than just a little bit of sorrow," calling the 49-year-old MP a "historic figure" for the unite-the-right merger deal in 2003 that launched Conservative Party as a competitive force.
"It changed, without a shadow of a doubt, the course of Canadian politics," the Conservative Leader recalled of Mr. MacKay's decision to join his Progressive Conservatives with Mr. Harper's Canadian Alliance – a union that helped end the right's years in the political wilderness. "It took a sense of destiny, a spirit of humility and a willingness to compromise."
The Nova Scotia MP cited his young family as the reason for his departure. He and his wife, Nazanin Afshin-Jam, are expecting a second child this fall.
"I love what I do, and I love the opportunities it afforded me to help others, but simply put, I love my family more," he said.
A Conservative source said the Prime Minister's Office has known of Mr. MacKay's plans to quit for about three weeks.
"He would like to have Peter stay. … It's never been a Brian Mulroney-Joe Clark sort of situation," the Conservative source said, referring to the enmity in the 1980s between the two Progressive Conservative prime ministers.
Mr. MacKay joins more than 30 Conservative MPs who have announced their intention to step down as of the next election, including Heritage Minister Shelly Glover, International Development Minister Christian Paradis, Diane Ablonczy, first elected as a Reform Party MP in 1993, and one-time defence minister Gordon O'Connor. This represents more than 18 per cent of the current Tory caucus.
"A lot of people seem to be leaving Stephen Harper's ship these days," NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair quipped on Friday.
Mr. MacKay, who has spent 18 years in federal politics, said he has no employment prospects yet. Conflict-of-interest legislation prevents cabinet ministers from negotiating new jobs until they leave cabinet, and the Nova Scotia MP intends to stay in the Justice portfolio until the election. "I have not sought nor secured other employment," he said on Friday.
The MP became the second-longest serving minister of National Defence in Canadian history, shepherding the final years of Canada's war in Afghanistan.
But his legacy in helping the Conservative Party win power seems to be his most enduring accomplishment, and Mr. Harper took pains on Friday to underline how the party remains united rather than split into the Reform and Red Tory factions that formed it.
Without the merger, the Conservative Leader said, in a message clearly aimed at his troops, "the lives of all of Canada's conservatives would have been bound in shallows and miseries."
Mr. Harper has lost key lieutenants in the past few years, including his closest political deputy, John Baird, who quit politics earlier this year. Former finance minister Jim Flaherty announced his exit in 2014 and died suddenly soon afterwards.
Mr. MacKay, the son of Mulroney-era cabinet minister Elmer MacKay, was the standard bearer for the more centrist, Progressive Conservative wing of the party. His departure is a serious blow for the Prime Minister.
Without him, the Conservatives, facing an expected surge of support for the rival Liberals in Atlantic Canada, will have to fight harder to retain his riding, Central Nova.
Mr. MacKay's continued presence over the past decade sent a message to centrist conservative voters that the new party still had room for them.
Mr. MacKay still has strong appeal among Conservative rank-and-file as evidenced by his reception at party conventions, where members throng him and heed his opinions.
For years, the Atlantic Canadian MP has been able to beat back attempts by the Reform wing of the party to alter the Conservative leadership-selection process so it gives more clout to riding associations with bigger memberships – benefiting Western Canadian and Ontario ridings.