It’s fairly obvious where things are in federal politics now: The country, by and large, is tiring of Justin Trudeau as prime minister, but it’s far from sure about Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre.
Many Canadians – apart from partisans who can’t see why everyone else doesn’t love or hate the politicians they do – would recognize that. The public isn’t gripped with a fever for change yet, but the mood is peevish. Where Mr. Trudeau once charmed he often now grates. The water is close to the fill line.
That’s why it has been so strange to hear the way Mr. Trudeau and the Liberals around him talk about the political timetable.
This week, the Liberal cabinet will gather for a retreat in Prince Edward Island, under pressure to fashion an agenda that meets the anxiety about the cost of living and especially housing. It’s a cabinet that Mr. Trudeau revamped on July 26, when he stated he was putting together a team to serve the second half of the Liberal government’s mandate. And Mr. Trudeau has told Liberals he expects to run for re-election after that.
Mr. Trudeau is telling the country he intends to serve out his term for another two years, and run for re-election asking for four more. And his party, his caucus of MPs, seem to accept that’s the plan.
But the arithmetic doesn’t add up. He could plausibly try do one of those things – serve out the term or run for re-election. But both together – well, that doesn’t seem to take any account of the national mood.
Sure, one can still imagine Mr. Trudeau running for re-election. He is behind in opinion polls, and he would be shooting for a rare fourth win. But Mr. Trudeau’s party is betting that many Canadians, especially those who typically support the New Democrats, will be motivated to stop Mr. Poilievre from becoming prime minister.
Even though the Conservatives are ahead in polls, many people tell pollsters they have negative views of the party’s leader. And campaigns and issues matter; Mr. Poilievre’s policies remain largely unknown.
Perhaps – who knows – Mr. Trudeau will put out a refreshed political program, pack it into a spring budget and a platform, call an election and eke out another victory. Mr. Trudeau might take a gamble in say, eight months from now that he still has enough goodwill out there to pull it off. But in two years?
Mr. Trudeau’s welcome already seems to be wearing thinner.
A July poll conducted by Nanos Research found that 53 per cent of Canadians want him to be replaced as Liberal leader. That’s not the end of the world: The same poll found 51 per cent want Mr. Poilievre replaced as Conservative leader, too.
But the Liberals should be concerned that just 42 per cent of their own voters preferred the idea of Mr. Trudeau leading the party in the next election, only slightly more than the number who want him to go.
The number of people who pick Mr. Trudeau as their preferred prime minister in Nanos polls has eroded. The trend shouldn’t be too surprising; it happens to most long-serving leaders. The only prime minister since the Second World War to be re-elected after serving more than a decade was Mr. Trudeau’s father, Pierre – and he lost his fourth election before making a comeback.
There are reasons for Mr. Trudeau to speak about serving out the remaining two years of his term. He has agreed to a parliamentary alliance with the NDP that is supposed to run until the fall of 2025. And he called an early election in 2021 and was hit with a backlash from voters who viewed it as a cynical, self-serving move.
And there are reasons why Liberals have not rebelled against his plan to run again – as Liberals have in the past.
Mr. Trudeau remains the stage-stealer in the Liberal Party. There is no pretender who can say they have his campaign chops – or claim to offer a chance of both renewing the party’s support and retaining its critical support in Quebec.
Even with all those reasons, Mr. Trudeau’s stated timeline doesn’t make for plausible political calculations. How many Canadians outside Liberal ranks can see him in power for six more years? Already, in 2023, the public mood makes that feel like a prime minister trying to outrun time.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that only Pierre Trudeau had served as prime minister for more than a decade since the Second World War; however, Jean Chrétien served for 10 years and 38 days. This version has been corrected.