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The Prime Minister’s top aides, Katie Telford and Gerald Butts, had a hand in the government’s biggest files. But as Adam Radwanski and Daniel Leblanc report, the burden of office took a toll, putting Justin Trudeau’s leadership to the test

Few people had ever seen signs of discord, at least in public, between Katie Telford, the Prime Minister’s chief of staff, and Gerald Butts, his principal secretary. But at the Château Laurier last December, something was off.Source photo Chris Wattie/Reuters. Photo illustrations The Globe and Mail/The Globe and Mail

The cracks were already showing when the powerful backroom duo at the heart of Justin Trudeau’s government dined at the Château Laurier last December.

Few people had ever seen signs of discord, at least in public, between Katie Telford, the Prime Minister’s chief of staff, and Gerald Butts, his principal secretary. But this time something was off. As they sat with Canada’s ambassador to the United States, David MacNaughton, the conversation grew heated – so much so that word of it reached other members of the Prime Minister’s Office.

It was not as isolated an exchange, in the latter months of 2018, as many would have believed. During the stress-filled final stages of NAFTA renegotiations with the Trump administration last August and September, the two had gotten into some uncharacteristically sharp disagreements.

The fraying of nerves involved more than just the relationship between two people, who by all accounts remain friends. That was a symptom, rather, of how an unsustainable management system was breaking down – before being suddenly upended by Mr. Butts’s resignation amid the SNC-Lavalin affair.

To better understand the dynamics of the Prime Minister’s Office under Mr. Trudeau, The Globe and Mail spoke to more than two dozen Liberal Party sources: current and former chiefs of staff, ministerial aides, senior members of the PMO, ministers and MPs, as well as outsiders with long ties to the party and the current government. They were granted anonymity in order to speak freely and, in some cases, avoid professional retribution.

The result is a picture of a PMO in which early successes obscured accumulating structural problems – the result of Mr. Trudeau’s extremely heavy reliance on two people to run his government. And those problems set the stage for a scandal that would rock the government, bring an abrupt end to the Butts-Telford partnership and force Mr. Trudeau to confront his relatively hands-off approach to running his office.

As old friends – and as personal friends with the Prime Minister – Ms. Telford and Mr. Butts sometimes described themselves as “co-CEOs,” because just about anything of consequence in government went through them. As the Liberals prepared to launch this year’s re-election bid, the widespread assumption was that Mr. Butts and Ms. Telford would reassume their roles from the last race – he as the grand visionary, taking the lead on policy and communications, she overseeing the complex operations of a modern national campaign.

Now, despite initial hopes among some Liberals that his resignation from the Prime Minister’s Office would just expedite his move to the campaign, Mr. Butts is mostly out of the picture, apart from informal conversations with Mr. Trudeau, with whom he has been extremely close since their university days. And, according to multiple sources, if Ms. Telford was planning to run the campaign, that won’t be the case; now that she’s alone at the top of the PMO, the plan is for her to stay there and to name someone else campaign director. All that could change, but nobody expects a return to anything resembling the previous model.

Mr. Trudeau himself – who placed an enormous amount of trust in Mr. Butts and Ms. Telford, to the exclusion of others in his office and cabinet – has at times looked unmoored by the turmoil, struggling to find the right tone on SNC-Lavalin and a way to turn the corner.

But, as well as needing to find his footing again publicly, Mr. Trudeau finds himself under pressure to demonstrate a more hands-on form of leadership.

His current and former staff members have found themselves under the microscope because of the SNC-Lavalin saga – which includes the resignations of former attorney-general Jody Wilson-Raybould and fellow senior minister Jane Philpott from cabinet, their ejection from the Liberal caucus, the early retirement of clerk of the Privy Council Michael Wernick, opposition allegations of a cover-up and the Liberal Party’s decline in the polls.

But the fallout has brought to the fore questions that have long bubbled beneath the surface about the Prime Minister himself – about how much he has stayed on top of the operations of his own office, cabinet, caucus and government and how comfortable he grew serving as the public face of his government and party while those in his employ sweated the details.

The sources for this story generally started from the premise that Mr. Butts, Ms. Telford and others in the PMO deserve ample credit both for the impeccable 2015 campaign that brought their party to power and for considerable successes during their mandate – the NAFTA renegotiations among them, as well as the implementation of a progressive policy agenda that included major tax and pension reforms and social changes such as the legalization of cannabis and greater income redistribution.

Many insiders also noted that Mr. Trudeau was in the unusual situation of leading a party that had vaulted into power from third place, with few experienced MPs to fill his cabinet and a limited pool of experienced political staff – all of which contributed to a centralization of power in the PMO that he had vowed to avoid during the campaign.

But along the way there also appears to have been a failure to empower people outside Mr. Trudeau’s inner circle, even as his top advisers started to show the strains of the massive burden they were carrying. And Mr. Trudeau seems to have failed to take into account that political staff are supposed to be more replaceable than the leaders they serve – as evidenced by the uncertainty and anxiety many Liberals have about what sort of prime minister he will be without both his co-CEOs behind him.

Mr. Butts and Ms. Telford were riding high in the early days of Mr. Trudeau’s government. Accompanying the Prime Minister on international trips, they rubbed elbows with the likes of then-U.S. president Barack Obama and his top officials, French President Emmanuel Macron and various high-profile billionaires and celebrities.Source photo Matthew Usherwood/Canadian Press/The Globe and Mail

Mr. Butts and Ms. Telford were riding high in the early days of Mr. Trudeau’s government.

Accompanying the Prime Minister on international trips – in some cases together, eschewing received wisdom that at least one of them should be back home minding the shop – they rubbed elbows with the likes of then-U.S. president Barack Obama and his top officials, French President Emmanuel Macron and various high-profile billionaires and celebrities.

Back home they both assumed unusually high profiles, raising eyebrows in a capital where political staff once lurked in the shadows while their bosses kept the spotlight to themselves. Mr. Butts was more obvious about it, maintaining a colourful presence on Twitter and making himself accessible to journalists. But with Mr. Trudeau’s and Mr. Butts’s encouragement, Ms. Telford also built a strong personal brand through public speeches and media profiles, her credentials as a woman under 40 running once-smoky backrooms meshing with the Prime Minister’s feminist agenda.

Having steered their party to power partly by distancing it from its old ethical baggage and internal feuding, they made few efforts to reach out to big players in Liberal governments past, during the Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin eras.

Both were new to running anything the scale of the federal government: Mr. Butts had been the policy and messaging guy for former Ontario premier Dalton McGuinty; Ms. Telford a chief of staff to a provincial minister and a deputy chief of staff to former Liberal leader Stéphane Dion.

They might as well have painted targets on their backs.

Mr. Butts, in particular, became a magnet for opposition attacks portraying him as a Machiavellian mastermind behind Mr. Trudeau – a degree of negative attention that several sources suggested may have contributed to his punchiness by this winter. And both were set up to have other Liberals question whether their abilities matched the hype, especially when the going got tough.

With the SNC-Lavalin affair now having driven the government to its lowest point thus far, it can be difficult to sort through the criticism: Some Liberals who would have at least grudgingly praised Mr. Trudeau’s team until recently, but felt underappreciated over the years, are only too happy to pile on.

Some of the most common complaints, such as the charge that power is too concentrated in the PMO, are not unique to this government. While Mr. Trudeau has not fully lived up to his promise of “government by cabinet,” that is more a case of failing to reverse a trend than of centralizing decision-making in his office.

But there are assessments of how that power has been wielded centrally that are shared by many of the government’s critics and defenders alike – and that go some way toward explaining how processes had broken down by the end of the government’s third year in power.

Among them is the ambiguity of the roles Mr. Butts and Ms. Telford played – and the lack of clear distinctions between them.

On paper, the top of Mr. Trudeau’s staffing chart appeared fairly traditional. Past prime ministers have also had a chief of staff, usually responsible for overseeing day-to-day operations, and a principal secretary, primarily responsible for serving as the PM’s top adviser on relatively high-level matters of policy, strategy and communications.

Mr. Butts’s and Ms. Telford’s respective skill sets ostensibly matched their titles. She is known as the more details-oriented, more organized and less emotional of the two. He is considered more instinctive and more inclined toward the big-picture narrative.

But as one government insider put it, and many (though not all) others agreed when it was repeated back to them, this PMO often functioned as though it had two principal secretaries and no chief of staff.

Despite Mr. Butts’s reputation for being Mr. Trudeau’s top adviser, Ms. Telford was more or less equal to him on that front. She did defer to him on a few policy files (climate change and pipelines are the most prominent examples), but on most matters Mr. Trudeau sought both their counsels – and in some cases took her advice over his.

That may have spared Mr. Trudeau some missteps, courtesy of Ms. Telford’s relatively cautious approach.

It also occasionally resulted in a form of confusion, described by several sources. Partly because Mr. Butts often appeared to be speaking for the Prime Minister, ministers or staffers would go directly to him for approval on decisions or take his insights as gospel; only later would they realize that he had only been offering his own opinions and that someone else’s view, presumably Ms. Telford’s or the Prime Minister’s, had prevailed in the PMO.

The bigger problem, according to the assessment of effectively having two principal secretaries, was that nobody was squarely and consistently on top of day-to-day operations – there was no chief operating officer alongside the “co-CEOs.”

A persistent complaint about Mr. Trudeau’s government, even during its halcyon days, has been that more prosaic matters regularly slip through the cracks. Appointments to vacant public-sector positions have notoriously lagged, the money for spending commitments has sometimes been slow to get out the door, and responses to industry or other stakeholder requests have taken longer than might reasonably be expected.

Much of the reason for that, according to many who have worked in or around the government, has been that files awaiting decisions or sign-off got bottlenecked on the desks of Mr. Butts or Ms. Telford while they were preoccupied with bigger and sexier stuff.

Some of what preoccupied them – an increasingly volatile international climate that has seen mounting tensions with countries such as China and Saudi Arabia, and above all the fallout from Donald Trump’s election in the U.S. – would have thrown a wrench into any government’s day-to-day operations.

Some Liberals question whether both of Mr. Trudeau’s top aides needed to be so involved in the NAFTA renegotiations. And that saga may have made the relationship at the top of the PMO less functional. Both top staffers were heavily engaged in those talks from the time Mr. Trump took office in 2017 until the G7 summit last June, which ended with Mr. Trump angrily tweeting his displeasure with Mr. Trudeau. Mr. Butts was then somewhat less involved through the summer, before re-engaging around the end of August, after Mexico had agreed to a side deal. Sources suggested that after that re-engagement there were quarrels between Mr. Butts and Ms. Telford, with each seeming to believe they were undermining each other with conflicting advice over the final shape of the deal or how to reach it.

However much tension it involved, the all-hands-on-deck approach may have helped reach an agreement with the unconventional U.S. administration – and the consequences of failing to do so would have been enormous.

But what added to the problem of neither Mr. Butts nor Ms. Telford being squarely focused on day-to-day governance, as well as the unsustainable burden on them, was the belief among fellow Liberals that everything had to go through them.

As some insiders look back, they recognize that the workload was too much for two people.

Ms. Telford and Mr. Butts may not have actually wanted control of every file. Sources who work in ministers’ offices described the odd case in which they would go to one of the top two staffers for a decision, only to be told to make it themselves. In some cases, seeking sign-off from them may have been about ministers or staff trying to avoid risk. And ministers who enjoy the trust of the PMO, such as Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland, Finance Minister Bill Morneau and Transport Minister Marc Garneau, seem to have found leeway.

But the bottlenecks, the failure of many in government to take the initiative on certain files and the accumulating burden on Mr. Butts and Ms. Telford all seemingly speak to a lack of trust or empowerment of most people within this government – including others among the roughly one hundred people who work within the PMO.

Other than Mr. Butts and Ms. Telford, the aides who have belonged to Mr. Trudeau’s inner circle through most of the Liberals’ term have been Mike McNair, the policy director, and Kate Purchase, the communications director. Both are said to offer some dissenting views behind closed doors, but others who have worked in the PMO say they are often in the dark about how that group reaches decisions.

With the possible exception of Brian Clow, a former Ontario Liberal staffer who was tasked with co-ordinating the NAFTA efforts out of the PMO and was recently named director of issues management, there is no one in the PMO’s inner circle who was not there at the start of the government’s mandate. And many of those positioned to take senior roles in the office have either moved to ministers’ offices to serve as chiefs of staff (among them former deputy chief of staff Jeremy Broadhurst and former issues management director Zita Astravas) or have left government altogether (including former director of operations John Zerucelli and Cyrus Reporter, who was Mr. Trudeau’s chief of staff in opposition and played a troubleshooting role in the early days of the government).

Meanwhile, fairly or not, a sense took hold that Mr. Butts and Ms. Telford were untouchable in the Prime Minister’s eyes – and that everyone else was more expendable, which helps explain why so many Liberals deferred to them even on minor matters.

And then there was the perceived gatekeeper role they played.

At odds with the way he has been sold to Canadians – as someone who is open and empathetic – the Prime Minister has not been as accessible as many members of his caucus wanted. Even members of his cabinet have struggled to get past his top staff to meet directly with him, especially without Ms. Telford or Mr. Butts in the room, and many would have appreciated having him informally reach out to them on occasion.

Those who know Mr. Trudeau well suggest such reticence has something to do with an awkwardness, perhaps even a shyness, that does not come across in public. While he draws energy off speaking with large groups of people, such as the town hall meetings he holds when touring the country, he is less comfortable in one-on-one meetings. And it was easy at times for him to default to his high-profile top aides to serve as his face within government for such interactions.

Mr. Trudeau’s office seems to consider his inclination to be away from Ottawa, representing Canada on the world stage and connecting with Canadians outside the political bubble, as a positive. Asked about his travel itinerary since taking office in 2015, a spokesperson noted that he has made 41 international trips, to 31 countries, and stopped in more than 200 locations in Canada.

But for all the focus on Mr. Trudeau’s staff, his absences from Ottawa combined with his surprising remoteness may point to where the buck stops for his government’s various management issues.

A prime minister who implicitly trusts and gives his top aides free rein on key files – who does not directly receive much input from ministers or most staff or rely on caucus members to be his eyes and ears across government and share their concerns – is liable to eventually pay for his hands-off approach.

That’s especially the case if those top aides get worn down by the workload they have taken on and become more susceptible to missing signs of trouble on all those files going through them – like the warning lights that should have been evident, in a well-functioning government, when it came to the matter of questioning how prosecutors were handling a multinational company’s criminal prosecution.

By multiple accounts, key members of the PMO were not at the top of their game when they engaged themselves in SNC-Lavalin’s criminal case. Late in 2018, some of his friends and colleagues observed that Mr. Butts seemed exhausted.Source photo Justin Tang/The Canadian Press/The Globe and Mail

The ethical implications of how Mr. Trudeau’s office engaged itself in SNC-Lavalin’s criminal case will long be the subject of debate. But what is beyond question is that the entire affair – from last fall through this past winter – represented a major system breakdown within the PMO.

New context provided by sources for this story in some ways helps explain why, even though less senior PMO officials Mathieu Bouchard and Elder Marques also tried to convince Ms. Wilson-Raybould to instruct the director of public prosecutions to consider a deferred prosecution agreement, Mr. Butts opted to shoulder the blame.

In addition to being Ms. Wilson-Raybould’s primary point of contact with the PMO, as he has publicly explained, Mr. Butts was in fact one of her biggest defenders within the office.

He had recruited her to run as a star candidate in Vancouver, a highly accomplished Indigenous leader who would speak to the government’s reconciliation agenda and help advance it, against the advice of Liberals in British Columbia who believed she would not be a good fit. And he successfully pushed back against other top officials in the PMO who, weary of battling her on many files and finding her overly confrontational with other ministers, wanted to move her out of her job as justice minister and attorney-general in cabinet shuffles earlier in the Liberals’ mandate.

In doing so, Mr. Butts took on more responsibility for making the PMO’s relationship with her work. Even he apparently grew to doubt that could happen: After resisting the earlier push to move her, he is said to have advocated for shifting her to Fisheries in a shuffle at the end of last summer (with Environment Minister Catherine McKenna replacing her at Justice), only for Mr. Trudeau to reject the idea.

But during the latter months of 2018, Mr. Butts seemingly ignored or was unaware of warning signs from her about her discomfort with the pressure she was being subjected to on the SNC-Lavalin file – pressure that continued even after she made her feelings known. And he seemingly failed to recognize the potential for her concerns to become public if she were shuffled in January, when the opportunity presented itself with veteran minister Scott Brison’s unexpected retirement announcement.

By multiple accounts, key members of the PMO were not at the top of their game as all this was going down. Late in 2018, some of his friends and colleagues observed that Mr. Butts seemed exhausted. If so, that would be unsurprising: He had been taking on an enormous amount of responsibility since before the Liberals won government, and the year had been especially taxing, from managing the government’s purchase of the Trans Mountain pipeline – which seemed to make nobody happy – to the down-to-the-wire NAFTA renegotiations and the related friction with his closest colleague. (It may not have helped that, by happenstance, Ms. Purchase and Mr. McNair were both away for some of those periods, for parental leave and personal reasons, respectively.)

Fatigue may also help explain Mr. Butts’s quick exit after the SNC-Lavalin story broke. During the 10 days he remained in his job after The Globe’s initial reporting of the pressure on Ms. Wilson-Raybould, colleagues felt he was struggling to keep his usual focus on the big picture – distressed by what he saw as the serious threat posed by Ms. Wilson-Raybould and generally advocating for a hard line against her, but jumping from one suggestion to another about how to respond. He quit on Family Day.

But a systems failure can’t be pinned on one overtired staffer, even one who to that point had earned so much trust from the Prime Minister.

If the cumulative effect of their enormous workloads meant his top aides were not performing at their best, it should have been up to Mr. Trudeau to take note and lighten their burden or provide them with additional support. But the level of trust he placed in Mr. Butts and Ms. Telford, and the relatively hands-off approach he took to some of the files they were managing, seems to have prevented him from doing so.

From the archives: Gerald Butts: The BFF in the PMO

While Mr. Trudeau was engaged enough in the SNC-Lavalin file to express a strong desire for the company to be granted a deferred prosecution agreement – to ensure the engineering multinational’s headquarters stayed in Quebec and to protect Canadian jobs – his interest appears to have been too high-level for him to notice the possibility of the story coming to light and how it would look if it did.

And Mr. Trudeau may have suffered, relatedly, for the extent to which he delegated his dealings with cabinet ministers to his staff and to Mr. Wernick, the Privy Council clerk. While Mr. Trudeau did have at least one conversation with Ms. Wilson-Raybould about the possibility of a deferred prosecution agreement, alongside Mr. Wernick in September, he evidently did not have a strong read on the state of affairs by the time of the January shuffle.

His lack of close cabinet relationships may also have played a role in the other ministerial departure that rocked his government as SNC-Lavalin played out.

Relative to Ms. Wilson-Raybould, Ms. Philpott – who had just been shuffled from Indigenous Services to replace Mr. Brison as President of the Treasury Board – had been held in high regard by the PMO. But she had complained about not having the Prime Minister’s ear, chafing at the difficulty of getting one-on-one time with him.

According to multiple sources, Ms. Philpott had been at odds with the PMO at least once before, over the government’s move to block funding for summer jobs programs for organizations that oppose abortion rights, and there was concern in the PMO that she would resign then. She was known to have developed a close relationship with Ms. Wilson-Raybould during their time together in cabinet. And after Ms. Wilson-Raybould’s resignation from cabinet and stunning testimony about the SNC-Lavalin affair before a parliamentary committee in late February, Ms. Philpott was privately expressing discomfort to fellow ministers about her role in cabinet – and even Mr. Trudeau’s leadership.

The level of intrigue in cabinet around that point was such that Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale felt the need to reassure a number of other ministers that he would not be running the government on an interim basis.

Yet it still apparently came as a surprise to most in the PMO, from Mr. Trudeau down, when Ms. Philpott resigned from cabinet in early March.

As the scandal dragged on for more than two months, Mr. Trudeau could not find a way to turn the corner and at times struggled to land on a discernible strategy. On March 7, the day after Mr. Butts delivered testimony before the parliamentary committee that seemed to set the table for Mr. Trudeau to offer some sort of apology for the affair, the Prime Minister held a news conference that was half-apologetic and half-defiant. Later, a decision about whether Ms. Wilson-Raybould and Ms. Philpott would remain in caucus was tortuously drawn out before they were eventually ejected. And at points, the PMO actively fuelled the story – most recently when Mr. Trudeau served Conservative Party Leader Andrew Scheer with a libel notice for comments about the scandal but failed to make any mention of it publicly, handing Mr. Scheer a chance to keep the scandal alive by going public with the threat a week later.

In defence of the PMO’s management of the SNC-Lavalin fallout, sources in Mr. Trudeau’s office point to the unusual nature of the affair, in that it was being driven by MPs (Ms. Wilson-Raybould, joined by Ms. Philpott) who for most of it continued to sit in the Liberal caucus. In some scandals, it is possible for those on the defensive to envision where it will go next and how it will end; in this case, the PMO found that difficult, because it depended on how much friendly fire they would continue to absorb. Some of those sources also say Mr. Trudeau made a calculated decision to exhaust all avenues to keep Ms. Wilson-Raybould and Ms. Philpott in caucus, even at the price of appearing indecisive in public.

To some extent, Liberals also acknowledge that the largely positive public perceptions of their government in its early days left it unprepared for the chaos this winter. Some PMOs are hardened by adversity in their first year or two; this one certainly dealt with its share of challenging and high-stakes files, but it had never really had to contend with this form of issues management.

Perhaps most tellingly, sources both inside and outside the PMO almost uniformly agreed that the events of this winter plunged Mr. Trudeau into a sort of identity crisis.

While still believing his office had the right intentions in pushing for a deferred prosecution agreement for SNC-Lavalin – to protect jobs in Quebec – the Prime Minister is said to be personally wounded by hits to his perceived feminism and support for Indigenous rights as a result of how Ms. Wilson-Raybould and Ms. Philpott were treated.

More than that, he has found himself caught between two approaches to management. As reflected (among other ways) in the eventual decision to remove Ms. Wilson-Raybould and Ms. Philpott from caucus, he has to some extent had to give up on the “sunny ways” branding of his early days. But he has not completely embraced the more hard-edged approach to discipline that would have been used by prime ministers such as Mr. Chrétien and Stephen Harper, which would have seen the two MPs kicked out sooner.

That makes for an ongoing challenge to how Mr. Trudeau broadly presents himself to Canadians and to how he makes decisions on a day-to-day basis as October’s election looms. And he is having to navigate it without the adviser he relied upon most to shape and help him understand his political persona.

At the height of the SNC-Lavalin affair the PMO reached out to about a dozen Liberal backroom veterans for advice.Source photo Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press/The Globe and Mail

At the height of the SNC-Lavalin affair – just after Ms. Philpott had followed Ms. Wilson-Raybould out of cabinet, and just before Mr. Butts’s testimony and Mr. Trudeau’s semi-apologetic news conference – the PMO reached out to about a dozen Liberal backroom veterans for advice.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau visited a reunion of former staffers who served his late father, PM Pierre Trudeau, in the 1970s and early 80s. The gathering took place at the Metropolitain Brasserie Restaurant in Ottawa on April 17th during lunch.Jean-Marc Carisse/The Globe and Mail

Among the old hands on the calls, which were spearheaded by issues management director Mr. Clow, were the likes of Eddie Goldenberg and Peter Donolo, who had been big players in Mr. Chrétien’s PMO; Tim Murphy, who had been chief of staff to Mr. Martin; and Andrew Bevan, who was chief of staff to former Ontario premier Kathleen Wynne. These were the sorts of people who had not received much outreach during Mr. Trudeau’s early years in office, and in part it seemed to be about sending a signal about broadening the tent. (Mr. Trudeau sent a similar signal this week when he made a surprise appearance at an Ottawa reunion of staffers who worked in his father’s PMO in the 1970s and early 1980s.)

One thing most of the people on the calls agreed upon was that Mr. Trudeau needed to appoint someone senior to manage his relationship with caucus – in fact, many were surprised he hadn’t done so earlier. And the PMO went on to appoint Parliament Hill veteran George Young to that role.

On just about everything else, the advice was contradictory. Some thought he needed to offer a full apology at his news conference; others thought showing any contrition at all would be a sign of weakness. There was also disagreement on whether Ms. Wilson-Raybould and Ms. Philpott should be kicked out of caucus; whether more staff needed to resign; whether Mr. Trudeau should himself appear before the parliamentary committee; whether the justice minister and attorney-general positions should be separated immediately – something the government is now studying.

So, if nothing else, the exercise was instructive when it comes to the PMO’s difficulty landing on a clear course of action in trying to manage its way out of the scandal.

And navigating that path has no doubt been made even harder without the adviser who, in better times, had been most inclined to pick a lane and stick with it.

Between Ms. Telford and Mr. Butts, she was the one more inclined to look at as many angles as possible before recommending a course of action to Mr. Trudeau. Mr. Butts was more inclined to make a quick decision.

There is no telling exactly how the SNC-Lavalin affair would have played out through March and into April – whether it would have had fewer unhelpful twists for the Liberals, or even more of them – if Mr. Butts had still been in the office.

But given that, at his best, Mr. Butts’s decisiveness was informed by an intuitive understanding of the big-picture story the government and party was looking to tell Canadians, there will likely be points leading into this year’s election and perhaps beyond where the Liberals will acutely miss his skill set alongside that of Ms. Telford.

It’s unclear whether Mr. Butts will play a role in the campaign, beyond keeping in touch with Mr. Trudeau. In an e-mail to The Globe, he stressed that he remains friends with both the Prime Minister and Ms. Telford and said he will “support them completely and unequivocally in their vital work.” As for what comes next for him, he said he and his wife, Jodi, “are in the process of making a decision about our professional futures” and have not reached one yet.

Mr. Butts has not fully kept his distance from his old stomping grounds, returning this week to attend Mr. Wernick’s going-away party – the only current or former member of Mr. Trudeau’s office to speak at the event. But there is no expectation that he will go back to the PMO.

Nor does Mr. Trudeau intend to name someone else to fill his role as principal secretary. Several insiders suggested the PMO may soon bring in an additional person to help with communications and messaging (in addition to Ms. Purchase), but barring a change in plans no one else will be slotted in at the top of the organization chart in the months ahead.

That puts Ms. Telford more in the spotlight than ever before. In Mr. Butts’s absence, she has already become a target for sniping from Liberals who are disgruntled with the way the crisis has been managed.

It also potentially gives her a chance to address some of the management issues that have been accruing ever since the Liberals won power – to better delegate, to create clearer lines of accountability, to empower others, to avoid setting herself up for the sort of exhaustion that may have contributed to Mr. Butts’s exit.

But it also places the onus on Mr. Trudeau to show what kind of a leader – not just publicly, but behind the scenes – he really is.

Few prime ministers have been able to count on, and entrust with core responsibilities, a management team of the sort that Mr. Butts and Ms. Telford formed for as long as Mr. Trudeau did.

On balance, it served him well. Long ago, when the Liberals were struggling in the polls before the last election, there were calls from other Liberals to replace the duo. He stuck with them, and their campaign strategy, and that led to not just a victory but a strong start in government, in which they helped him implement his legislative agenda so he could spend great amounts of time selling it. They did so with a cabinet mostly of rookies, and the staff’s somewhat heavy-handed management of those rookies worked well – until it didn’t.

But the partnership was going to end, sooner or later, even if SNC-Lavalin had not come along and even if the Liberals had coasted to re-election this year.

The longevity of even the most successful backroom operative tends to be much shorter than that of a successful front-line politician, because of the mental and physical toll the supporting work takes – the sort of toll that was visible, in the tensions between Mr. Butts and Ms. Telford, late last year.

Prime ministers who want to serve more than a single term usually need to have a strong enough handle on their own political identity, and the dynamics of their government, to adapt to different teams around them.

With the era of the co-CEOs now over, Mr. Trudeau will have less of the luxury of being managed – and a little more managing to do himself.

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