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Foreign Minister John Baird receives a standing ovation in the House of Commons in Ottawa on Tuesday, Feb. 5, 2015.Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

The abrupt departure of John Baird, one of the Conservative Party's most competent lieutenants, will force Stephen Harper to shuffle his cabinet for the second time in four weeks as he tries to make up for this loss of bench strength only seven months before the next election campaign is expected to start.

The 45-year-old Ottawa MP told Mr. Harper of his decision only on Monday night as news of his departure leaked out and forced him to move up an announcement planned for later this week.

Friends say Mr. Baird, who was appointed foreign affairs minister shortly after the 2011 election, had been contemplating an exit strategy for some time.

The death in April, 2014, of former finance minister Jim Flaherty, a friend and colleague in both the federal and Ontario cabinets, was a "turning point" for Mr. Baird.

"Jim's passing had a huge impact on him as well in terms of thinking about his future and life in general," said Chris Froggatt, a friend and former chief of staff to Mr. Baird.

Friends said Mr. Baird had always wanted the Foreign Affairs post, but had not stopped thinking about what to do next.

"He wanted to be foreign affairs minister, that was his ultimate dream job. … He revelled in it. He put 100 per cent into it," Mr. Froggatt said.

But, he added, Mr. Baird "achieved everything he wanted to achieve."

Just before Christmas, in December, 2014, the MP signalled to his former aide that his time in Ottawa might be drawing to an end.

"He talked openly about not running again and about moving to the private sector. It wasn't firm, but it's where his mind was going," Mr. Froggatt said.

About 10 days ago, Mr. Baird's decision "crystalized" in his mind, staff said.

His exit leaves Mr. Harper scrambling for a replacement. International Trade Minister Ed Fast will be acting Foreign Affairs Minister.

Because foreign affairs is also part of Mr. Harper's bailiwick, he could content himself with a competent bearer of messages for the Prime Minister's Office.

Mr. Baird was more than that.

Foreign Affairs requires a minister, who, like Mr. Baird, can be relied upon to speak for Mr. Harper, and accurately reflect his ideologically conservative views on foreign policy – stands that break with previous Canadian governments when it comes to unqualified support for Israel or the lack of enthusiasm for international climate-change-abatement accords.

Employment Minister Jason Kenney, another one of the most competent ministers in Mr. Harper's cabinet, would seem like a good choice. But geography works against him. Like the Prime Minister, he represents a Calgary riding. Mr. Harper needs to demonstrate he runs a national government, and is therefore unlikely to give another major portfolio such as Foreign Affairs or finance to a Calgary MP.

Immigration Minister Chris Alexander, a former diplomat, would appear to fit the bill, or an old hand such as Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt, who served in the Mulroney government.

NDP foreign affairs critic Paul Dewar said the government is going to have "massive shoes to fill" in replacing Mr. Baird.

"One thing I can say about him is he was in politics to make a difference," Mr. Dewar said. "He believed in what he was doing and for that I give him a lot of respect, even though we disagreed on a lot of issues."

Treasury Board President Tony Clement said he has tried to emulate Mr. Baird's ability to "disagree without being disagreeable," something that helped him build good relationships with other MPs.

"I'm going to miss him. But just as I would say to any colleague who leaves … you know that's a personal decision. You can never second guess that," he said.

Mr. Baird is expected to head to the private sector. Conflict-of-interest legislation prevents cabinet ministers from negotiating future employment, but now that he has resigned from Foreign Affairs, he will be more unfettered in discussing job opportunities.

One file that has occupied much of Mr. Baird's attention in recent weeks is that of Canadian journalist Mohamed Fahmy, who has been jailed in Egypt for more than a year. Mr. Baird said on Monday that Mr. Fahmy's release was "imminent."

Had the minister waited until Thursday to announce his resignation – as he had planned – Mr. Fahmy might have been freed in time for the success to be a final cap on Mr. Baird's legacy.

Jaime Watt, another friend of Mr. Baird's, said this departure was not a "rushed, panicky decision" but the culmination of a long process of contemplation.

"I think with John, he began that process a year ago and things came into formation in the last 60 days or something."

He said Mr. Baird wants a change of pace after the gruelling life of a cabinet minister in Ottawa and Toronto.

"He's had 10 portfolios. He would like to go to Loblaws and buy groceries and take them home and cook dinner."

Mr. Baird is expected to resign his seat in a few weeks. Election Act rules mean Mr. Harper could skip a by-election because the next general election is expected on Oct. 19 under fixed-election-date law.

Mr. Watt acknowledges the MP's departure is a loss to the Tories.

"I'm sure the PM would prefer not to have that news. I'm sure he's going to miss [Mr. Baird]. He was a terrific campaigner. He was a great warm-up act for the Prime Minister at rallies. He relied on him for his political nose – his ability to divine the political implications of decisions."

But, he said, the Ottawa MP had served Mr. Harper well for nine years.

"He's not a slave. He's done everything the Prime Minister has ever asked him to do and done it well."

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