It’s hard to believe that this is how Gerald Butts’s journey alongside Justin Trudeau to the height of Canadian political power comes to an end.
Take that in more ways than one.
The timing is one surprise: Few would have believed that Mr. Butts’s time in the Prime Minister’s Office, as Mr. Trudeau’s principal secretary, would be done before the completion of a single term. The cause is another: If he was eventually deemed too much of a liability to remain there, it seemed unlikely to be because of an ethics scandal. And then there is the question of whether this is really the end, at all.
The shock of how abruptly Mr. Trudeau and Mr. Butts have professionally split will be shared even by casual political observers, because there has been no adviser in this country’s history more tied to the identity of a prime minister. They have been close personal friends since their university days a quarter-century ago. Mr. Butts has effectively been by Mr. Trudeau’s side since the latter entered politics, and he has not been shy about taking on a public profile unusual for anyone who does not himself hold office.
If Mr. Trudeau stayed PM long enough, he would eventually have had to do without Mr. Butts working for him; staffers typically burn out before leaders do. But Mr. Butts had a romantic image of shaping the country alongside his friend – one that required more than the usual senior aide’s relatively brief tour of duty. And it was difficult to imagine Mr. Trudeau ever sidelining him. Both men have been known for nothing if not confidence, in themselves and each other, and past pressure from other Liberals to change up the team around their leader (notably during low points before the election that brought him to power) were brushed off.
The nature of what compelled Mr. Butts’s resignation – his part in the mess involving pressure on then-justice minister Jody Wilson-Raybould to defer prosecution of SNC-Lavalin − could seem more predictable. Cynicism about what goes on in political backrooms runs high.
But even during his time in Dalton McGuinty’s scandal-plagued government, Mr. Butts was not known for issues with his ethical standards. His detractors tended more to complain that he was holier than thou, and his biggest danger seemed to be letting his faith in his own smarts and virtue get out of control.
Maybe that’s what happened, if he overlooked how his involvement in the SNC-Lavalin file might look in the light of day. It’s also possible he became more willing to do politically expedient things the longer he spent at the centre of power. Until we learn more about what happened behind the scenes, and how it may have precipitated his departure, it’s tough to know.
What we also don’t know is something perhaps even more consequential: whether Mr. Trudeau’s political relationship with Mr. Butts is really being severed. Can the PM afford to have his friend giving him advice from the outside, at least? Can he afford not to?
Those who struggle to take Mr. Trudeau seriously have long portrayed Mr. Butts as his brain, his puppet master, the real PM. That is, by the account of people who have observed their dynamic firsthand, a gross exaggeration. Mr. Butts has been on a roughly equal footing with chief-of-staff Katie Telford, and Mr. Trudeau has been perfectly capable of turning down either’s advice.
But where Mr. Butts has played a unique and invaluable role is as the guardian of Mr. Trudeau’s political identity. His great skill is to help politicians fashion narratives that tap into both their personal appeal and voters’ priorities. That was evident even during his time with Mr. McGuinty, and he has been all the more able to do so with Mr. Trudeau, because he knows his friend like few others could – his skills, his vulnerabilities, what lies at his core. His job, in significant part, has been to make sure that policies and messages are consistent with the big-picture story Mr. Trudeau is trying to write.
Being part of the story himself, the way he has, could disqualify him from any such role. But it is not yet known whether leaving the PMO means Mr. Butts won’t work on this year’s campaign. And even if he doesn’t have any formal position – even if he never once enters the campaign office – he could keep providing directional advice and gut checks to Mr. Trudeau just by regularly taking his calls.
The Liberals probably don’t know how any of this will work yet, themselves. In as much disbelief as anyone, they’re left to figure out how they’ve gone so badly off the rails, and whether the person who understood their journey as well as anyone can still be involved in helping them get back on track.