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Prime minister Justin Trudeau addresses the media during a tour of the Stellantis Windsor Assembly Plant in Windsor, on Jan. 17.REBECCA COOK/Reuters

A few months ago, Justin Trudeau’s surrogates started to spread the word he will run again in the next election. But there is still time for that to change. About a year, in practice.

This year, 2023, is when Mr. Trudeau will really have to decide. And maybe it will be decided for him. Certainly, if his recent dip in the polls gets deeper, Liberals will get pretty nervous.

It is the Prime Minister’s eighth year in office, and there aren’t many long-serving incumbents in recent history who won at that late stage.

His father, Pierre Trudeau, lost the 1979 election, even though he came back in the 1980 vote. Brian Mulroney left after nine years with his popularity in the basement. Jean Chrétien was more or less hounded out by his own party.

But Liberals around Mr. Trudeau started talking up his fighting mood last fall, just after Pierre Poilievre was chosen as Conservative Leader.

The PM is loaded for bear, they told journalists. He delivered some combative speeches that were dubbed “election-style.” He’s itching to take on Mr. Poilievre, Liberal operatives said, and he’s running again.

Of course, a long-serving incumbent prime minister has an interest in sending that message whether or not it is true. They don’t want to become lame ducks while their cabinet ministers jockey to replace them.

Mr. Trudeau had already taken steps in 2022 to keep his options open: The parliamentary alliance he struck in March with NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh – which in theory makes his government secure until the 2025 election – allows him time and political space to either do things he wants to get done before he leaves office or plot his re-election campaign.

But the latter option gets iffy if Mr. Trudeau’s electability erodes. And that’s what usually happens after a PM is in power this long.

The latest Nanos Research tracking poll of 1,000 Canadians – a four-week rolling sample of 250 per week – has Mr. Trudeau’s Liberals, at 28.3 per cent, running seven percentage points behind Mr. Poilievre’s Conservatives, at 35.6.

Small shifts in polls taken between election campaigns don’t mean all that much, but if it becomes a deeper, lasting trend, it will send jitters through Liberal ranks. The party eked out wins in the last two elections without winning the popular vote, with 32.6 per cent in 2021. Losing a few percentage points would mean losing power.

Would Mr. Trudeau really run if the prospects looked dim? Would his party ask him not to? In practical terms, they will have to decide by year-end.

If he stepped down, the Liberals would want to choose a replacement in 2024, to give the new leader time to settle into the job, and even the possibility of calling an election before the scheduled date on Oct. 20, 2025. It takes about six months to run a leadership race.

In practical terms, if Justin Trudeau is going to take his walk in the snow, next winter is the time.

In most parties, he would already be facing antsy party poobahs wondering aloud whether it’s nearing time for a change.

But Mr. Trudeau is really the main figure in this Liberal Party now. There is no longer a cohort of powerful party cadres who control the Liberal organization from backrooms. Mr. Trudeau doesn’t have a lot of challengers in his caucus, or his cabinet.

And there is another issue: no obvious successor waiting in the wings.

Some cabinet ministers – including Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland, Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly, Defence Minister Anita Anand, Innovation Minister François-Philippe Champagne – have done some low-key leadership positioning.

But it is (a) hard to match Mr. Trudeau’s political-performance skills and (b) hard for any of Mr. Trudeau’s ministers to distance themselves from Justin Trudeau. Liberals might doubt any of them can do better than Mr. Trudeau. You can bet Mr. Trudeau has enough ego to doubt it, too.

Still, those calculations don’t usually get easier eight years into a prime minister’s tenure. Liberals will be watching the polls in 10 or 11 months. The way his government handles 2023 might decide matters for him.