Philpott resignation pre-empts PMO’s next move

In politics, as in chess, woe befalls the player who’s thinking only one move ahead.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 05/03/2019 (1481 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

In politics, as in chess, woe befalls the player who’s thinking only one move ahead.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his closest advisers appear to have done just that, as their fairly transparent plan to undercut the credibility of departed cabinet minister Jody Wilson-Raybould was undone in no uncertain terms Monday by the resignation of a second cabinet minister, Jane Philpott, in protest of the PM’s handling of the SNC-Lavalin affair.

The strategy, while unleashed with a modicum of stealth, was obvious to anyone who had been paying close attention to the expanding scandal that may yet engulf the federal Liberals. After reportedly being pressured by Mr. Trudeau and senior members of the Prime Minister’s Office for her refusal, on legal and practical grounds, to intervene in the criminal prosecution of SNC-Lavalin for alleged bribery and corruption in connection with its business dealings in Libya, Ms. Wilson-Raybould was demoted from her position as justice minister and attorney general and subsequently resigned from cabinet.

Mr. Trudeau said she had not been unduly pressured to push the case toward a deferred prosecution agreement (DPA), which would avert a trial and shield the company from the prospect of a 10-year ban on bidding for Canadian government contracts. Ms. Wilson-Raybould laid out her assertions last week in testimony before the House of Commons justice committee.

It was a damning presentation, but the prime minister seemed comfortable afterward, stating that he wholeheartedly disagreed with the former attorney general’s position.

In the aftermath of the initial Globe and Mail story that opened this scandalous can of worms, Mr. Trudeau’s closest adviser, principal secretary Gerald Butts, abruptly resigned from his post. He stated he did not want his alleged involvement in pressuring Ms. Wilson-Raybould to become a distraction, but some observers noted immediately that by exiting, Mr. Butts had freed himself to testify in the PM’s defence before the justice committee.

Sure enough, immediately after Ms. Wilson-Raybould’s blockbuster encounter last week, Mr. Butts announced he was available and willing to appear. A session was scheduled for this morning, and those in the politics-observance business readied themselves for a robust rebuttal that would undoubtedly paint Ms. Wilson-Raybould as something of a rogue entity whose understanding of the SNC-Lavalin imbroglio differs markedly from the more conventional government wisdom.

A sound strategy, perhaps, if what was being played here were a casual game of political checkers. But the error of this Trudeau/Butts one-move gambit was laid bare by the sudden exit of Ms. Philpott, perhaps the most highly respected member of Mr. Trudeau’s inner circle. In her no-punches-pulled resignation letter, Ms. Philpott stated she had lost confidence in the government’s handling of the SNC-Lavalin file and could no longer, in good conscience, defend the decisions of the cabinet in which she had served.

“The solemn principles at stake are the independence and integrity of our justice system,” she wrote, adding, “I must abide by my core values, my ethical responsibilities and constitutional obligations. There can be a cost to acting on one’s principles, but there is a bigger cost to abandoning them.”

With that, any notion held by Mr. Trudeau, Mr. Butts or anyone else in the PMO that Ms. Wilson-Raybould could be dismissed via unshackled-former-staffer testimony as an out-of-step loner has been summarily dismantled. The controversy that had evolved into a scandal and was headed toward disaster has now become all that and more.

Were you about to say something, Mr. Butts?

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