Quick: Name five members of Stephen Harper's cabinet who are running for re-election.
That's getting harder every month. On Friday, it was Industry Minister James Moore, the senior minister from British Columbia, who announced he's leaving politics. Mr. Harper's front bench is thinning.
Departures happen, but there are now so many it could damage Mr. Harper, by underscoring the notion that the only minister who matters in his cabinet is the prime minister. It feeds the narrative of lonely-man-running-the-country-alone that his opponents have tried to advance.
Mr. Moore said he's leaving because he wanted more time to spend with his young son, who has serious health challenges. It's hard to think of a more compelling reason.
But Mr. Moore, 39, is one of several high-profile ministers who've recently decided to leave. There was John Baird, 46, who quit as foreign minister in February for a spin in the private sector. In May, it was Justice Minister Peter MacKay, 49, who wanted time with his young family.
They had big portfolios, each was a regional political minister, and in the prime of their political lives. Is Mr. Harper's cabinet a place where only the PM's ambitions survive?
Mr. Moore came to Ottawa in 2000 as a 24-year-old Canadian Alliance MP, was a junior minister at 32, and leaves holding the second most important economic portfolio in government, overseeing industrial strategy, commercial regulation and billions in corporate handouts. He's a fiscal conservative and social moderate from the Vancouver suburbs, mooted by some as a potential future Conservative leader, and the top Tory in a critical election battleground, B.C.
Mr. Harper has lost a real political asset in Mr. Moore, and he did with Mr. Baird and Mr. MacKay.
There are others leaving, too: Heritage Minister Shelley Glover and International Co-operation Minister Christian Paradis. MPs move on. More than 50 won't run again in October. But if the cabinet departures are dismissed as predictable, then Mr. Harper neglected the succession plan for his front bench.
There are few known names left. For most Canadians, even those who follow politics, naming those five ministers running for re-election would be a real challenge.
There's Defence Minister Jason Kenney, an energetic 47-year-old who built the Conservative Party's ethnic outreach strategy, handled high-profile issues in immigration and employment, and might well be the front-runner to succeed Mr. Harper as party leader. Maybe some would name Lisa Raitt, 47, the sharp Transportation Minister who represents a suburban Greater Toronto Area riding, or Edmonton's Rona Ambrose, 46. Perhaps they'd know a minister from their town.
But most people couldn't pick Diane Finley or Rob Nicholson, senior ministers for nine years, out of a police lineup. There are capable, but unremarkable performers, like Trade Minister Ed Fast, little known outside their department's clientele. It's one thing to eschew flash, but Mr. Harper might turn up at an election as a veteran PM without a recognizable team.
On Thursday, Mr. Harper was at a news conference in Toronto standing next to the man supposed to be his cabinet heavy-hitter, Finance Minister Joe Oliver, 75. But Mr. Oliver has an unusually low-profile for that role, even in selling his own April budget, or fielding questions about it in the Commons, a job often handed to other ministers. His colleagues rate him as a smart man, but Mr. Harper isn't making him the main economic spokesman, like his predecessor, the late Jim Flaherty.
There's arguably only one minister who has recently been promoted both up the ranks and out in the public eye: Employment Minister Pierre Poilievre, known for dogged devotion to PMO scripts.
Of course, most Canadians thought Mr. Harper called all the shots, anyway. His core supporters like that – he's a strong leader. The flip side is many others, including some swing voters, see him as too controlling. Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau fans the perception, this week calling him "secretive and closed off."
Long-serving PMs always have to guard against the notion they're past their best-before date, and the idea that his stars are drifting away, leaving Mr. Harper running things alone, won't help. He should be worrying about finding a front-bench succession plan in the next four months.