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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau leaves a caucus meeting on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Oct. 25.Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

Put yourself in the shoes of a Liberal MP hearing grumbles that Justin Trudeau should go. There have been assertions he was spoiling for an election fight with Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre, assurances that there was still time till the next election, and, as polls suggest a national case of Trudeau fatigue, repeated questions about whether he can hang on.

Now, there must be a new fear dawning for Liberals: They might be trapped with Mr. Trudeau.

It’s not just that the Prime Minister might dig in. There is no reliable sign that anyone else in Liberal-land can cure what ails the party. Even if Mr. Trudeau were doomed to lose, he might lose less disastrously than anyone else.

Maybe that’s why there is a disconnect even among those Liberals who believe Mr. Trudeau’s time is pretty much up. They aren’t anxiously hoping for a leadership race. Some are willing to peer past the edge of Mr. Trudeau’s tenure, but not to contemplate a leap.

Opinion polls keep giving Liberals reasons to open their eyes wider. It’s not just the slide to a double-digit deficit behind Mr. Poilievre’s Conservatives. The Liberals are now behind in every age group and in almost every region. Their legendary gender gap is gone. Nanos Research polls now show more women saying they would vote Conservative than Liberal and for the first time, more women choosing Mr. Poilievre over Mr. Trudeau as preferred prime minister.

Mr. Trudeau’s entourage tells Liberal MPs there is still time to turn things around, but there are few forces in politics more potent than a groundswell for change. And polls say even a lot of Liberal voters want him to go.

But then there’s another question: Are there any viable candidates for the Liberal leadership who represent change from Mr. Trudeau’s government? If the party is stuck with being Trudeau Liberals, is there anyone better to sell it than Justin Trudeau?

Could Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland embody change? Or Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly? Or Treasury Board President Anita Anand?

It’s a more complicated question when you look at where the Liberals are still leading in opinion polls: in Quebec. Their 35 seats in the province start to look like a bulwark that is not just key to any hope of victory but an important line of defence in a loss.

The Liberals would be wagering with much higher stakes if they replace Mr. Trudeau with a new leader from outside Quebec. And if the party realizes what a wild gamble that would be, the field of potential replacements would effectively be limited to two: Ms. Joly and Industry Minister François-Philippe Champagne.

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Fred DeLorey, who ran the 2021 Conservative election campaign for then-leader Erin O’Toole, wrote an article in August arguing that Mr. Trudeau is a proven campaigner and the Liberals’ strongest asset. And, he noted, if he goes, his experienced campaign team will inevitably be replaced.

If Mr. Trudeau finds the right narrative, he might surprise people, Mr. DeLorey said Wednesday. He still thinks the Liberals’ chances of winning the next election are slim to none, but that in replacing Mr. Trudeau they would be taking a gamble that could decide whether the party remains a strong force or gets decimated. “They could end up in Michael Ignatieff territory,” he said. Mr. Ignatieff led the Liberals to a third-place finish with 34 seats in 2011.

There are cautionary comparisons if you want to stretch them. Stephen Harper lost in 2015 but his Conservatives still won 99 seats; Brian Mulroney resigned in 1993 and his successor, Kim Campbell, led the Progressive Conservatives to two seats. Those two elections weren’t alike, but there are enough historical reminders that long-serving governments that change leaders to improve their fortunes can end up getting clobbered.

So now sitting Liberal MPs, most of whom were elected on Mr. Trudeau’s coattails, might just be getting the queasy feeling that the party’s prospects look bad with Mr. Trudeau but could get worse without him.

One person will make the decision now, anyway. And time is running out. If Mr. Trudeau is leaving, he’d have to resign by next spring to afford his party the time to hold a leadership race and prepare for an election in 2025. And if the PM decides this winter he’s really running again, his Liberal MPs are in for the ride with him, over many more months, even if Trudeau fatigue deepens.

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