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Stephen Harper has removed beleaguered Julian Fantino as Veterans Affairs minister as the Conservatives try to repair relations with a politically sensitive constituency in advance of this year's federal election.

The blunt-spoken former police chief has been replaced by Erin O'Toole, a Conservative MP and Canadian Armed Forces veteran whom the Tories are counting on to rescue their reputation in the face of persistent criticism that Ottawa is short-changing former soldiers.

This mini-shuffle at the start of 2015 indicates how worried Mr. Harper is about the perception that his party, which styles itself as pro-military, is failing veterans, and reflects the concern within Tory ranks that this could damage Conservative electoral fortunes.

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It's rare for Mr. Harper to dump under-performers from cabinet except in cases of clear wrongdoing, or if it's timed with their exit from politics. And the Prime Minister is reluctant to demonstrate he's responding to outside pressure or, apparently, to drop a high-profile MP from the vote-rich Toronto suburbs. But Mr. Fantino – once celebrated by Mr. Harper – had clearly become a liability, so on Monday he was demoted to a junior minister's post in National Defence.

Mr. Fantino had struggled as the chief spokesman for the government on veterans, unable to sell the idea that Tories were improving service and benefits for former soldiers even while Ottawa was cutting departmental spending and reducing payouts to some. He famously skipped a meeting with veterans in January, 2014, and appeared to run away last May from the wife of a veteran who was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

One senior Conservative government official, speaking on condition of anonymity, described Mr. Fantino as an "inelegant communicator" and an "old-school cop … [who] wasn't great at political management of these challenges."

Government officials said the shuffle was timed to take place while the Commons is not sitting. This gives Mr. O'Toole several weeks to brief himself on files and meet with veterans groups before he has to face opposition MPs during Question Period in the last week of January.

More than one month ago, the Prime Minister's Office tried to salvage things with the besieged Mr. Fantino, dispatching PMO communications staffer Stephen Lecce to run the minister's office.

Now, Mr. Fantino becomes the secondary minister at Defence. The Associate Minister of Defence portfolio has been left vacant for large stretches over the past 45 years, and is the same post the Vaughan, Ont., MP held in 2011 when he grappled with the difficulties of selling Canadians on the controversial F-35 fighter jet.

This time, the PMO announced, Mr. Fantino will be supporting Defence Minister Rob Nicholson "in the areas of arctic sovereignty, information technology security and foreign intelligence, thus continuing the government's efforts to defend our values and interests at home and around the world."

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The shuffle expands Mr. Harper's cabinet to 40 ministers, a record for the Conservative Leader whose first cabinet back in 2006 was only 26 ministers. The Prime Minister, who once made a virtue of small cabinets, is now tied with former Progressive Conservative prime minister Brian Mulroney for the largest federal cabinet in Canadian history.

Mr. Fantino's record in federal politics has been unremarkable for a man who ran some of the largest police forces in Canada, including Toronto's and the Ontario Provincial Police. His ascent to federal politics in 2010 was celebrated by Mr. Harper not only because his seat represented another incursion into the former Liberal stronghold of the Greater Toronto Area, but also because the former top cop fit the bill in terms of political imagery.

In the past 12 months, however, Mr. Fantino became the target for everything that went wrong at Veterans Affairs, from the closure of service centres to long delays in mental-health disability benefits to layoffs that occurred despite internal warnings that service to former soldiers might suffer.

"It's for us a bit of a mystery how Mr. Fantino can remain there," Official Opposition Leader Tom Mulcair said of the Vaughan MP's new junior cabinet position. "It's a half-hearted firing of an incompetent minister."

Pollster Nik Nanos said the Tories, who will be trying to retain their majority in the 2015 election, can't afford to alienate veterans. "They are a critical target group for who they are and what they represent," he said. "The Harper government has prided itself on support for the military and a disconnect with veterans presents a risk to the strides the Tories have made over the past few years."

Mr. O'Toole, MP for the Ontario riding of Durham, served in the Royal Canadian Air Force and helped found the True Patriot Love Foundation, a charity for military families. He entered federal politics in a late 2012 by-election.

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The new minister took no questions Monday as he left Rideau Hall after his swearing-in, saying only it's an "honour to serve our veterans."

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