And the big winner is … the cabinet member with low credibility.
In shuffling his cabinet Monday in response to the lightning-quick and as-yet-unexplained departure of foreign minister John Baird, Prime Minister Stephen Harper made two sound appointments and an in-your-face objectionable one.
Rob Nicholson gets Foreign Affairs. He's been a loyal and effective performer for nine years. He rarely gets in trouble and when he does, he beats down the critics, delivering talking points with razor-edged conviction.
Jason Kenney will stand on guard as Minister of Defence. A long-time cabinet success story, he might have been better suited to Foreign Affairs, but he has an independent streak, and after Mr. Baird's departure, Mr. Harper needs someone marching in lock-step for that position.
The surprise is the three important roles for Pierre Poilievre. He succeeds Mr. Kenney as Minister of Employment and Social Development. He retains his role as Minister of State for Democratic Reform. And since he is the cabinet's last remaining Ottawa-region MP, he will also take on Mr. Baird's responsibility for the National Capital Commission – "minister of Ottawa."
His elevation will anger many, but it's in keeping with Mr. Harper's penchant for rewarding his most partisan MPs. Mr. Poilievre's handling of a new elections bill was a widely ridiculed embarrassment. He had to withdraw many of its initial provisions. In Question Period, he is known to turn legitimate queries into vitriol-laced attacks on the questioner.
Mr. Harper might have done well to promote a stronger player to Democratic Reform, because the opposition parties will be highlighting the Conservatives' vulnerabilities on abuse of power ahead of the coming election.
The same 35-year-old career politician now has to handle the important role of Employment Minister – a role that, considering Canada's iffy economy, will also put him on the hot seat going into an election. What experience and credibility does Mr. Poilievre bring to that job?
Monday's cabinet shuffle was well timed, at least. It doused the news of Tory lightweight Eve Adams's floor-crossing to the Liberals. The Liberals should have figured the shuffle was coming and held off on their little coup if they wanted more attention for it.
Ms. Adams said she could no longer support "mean-spirited leadership … I want to work with someone who inspires, not with fear-mongers and bullies." There is a lot of truth to those charges, which we've heard from many others. That said, Ms. Adams likely would have been singing Mr. Harper's praises, not crossing the floor, had he helped her find a seat as a Conservative. She has been up to her eyeballs in controversy over her failed bid for a nomination.
With the cabinet shuffle, the speculation about Mr. Baird's departure will likely end. Most signs pointed to a split with Mr. Harper. Otherwise, why wouldn't Mr. Baird have stayed on in the portfolio until the election? And why wouldn't the departure have been co-ordinated with the Prime Minister's Office if he had been getting on swimmingly with the Prime Minister?
Mr. Nicholson was once considered a moderate. It's a safe bet that he's getting the Foreign job not only for his wealth of experience, but because he isn't one to challenge Mr. Harper, who handles the most important foreign files himself. Moreover, in the Defence portfolio, he showed himself well capable of playing the fear card, which the Conservatives will be drawing on all the way to the polls.