AT A CAMPAIGN-STYLE rally in Toronto on March 4th, Justin Trudeau, the Canadian prime minister, began his speech on a downbeat note. Although the purpose of the rally was to tout the climate-change policies of his Liberal government, Mr Trudeau had to start by acknowledging that he had lost one of his most respected ministers. Hours before he took the podium, Jane Philpott quit as head of the Treasury Board, which oversees government spending. Her departure was an expression of dismay at Mr Trudeau’s handling of the worst scandal to befall his government since it took office in October 2015. Two members of his cabinet and his closest aide have resigned so far. His fans’ cheers in Toronto could not disguise the fact that his government is in crisis. Mr Trudeau’s hope of re-election in October this year has been dented.
The controversy has raged since February 7th, when the Globe and Mail, a newspaper, published a report alleging that Mr Trudeau and his aides had put improper pressure on the justice minister and attorney-general, Jody Wilson-Raybould. Quoting unnamed sources, the report said that Mr Trudeau and his team wanted Ms Wilson-Raybould to decide against the prosecution of SNC-Lavalin, a Quebec-based construction firm, on charges of bribing officials in Libya when the country was ruled by Muammar Qaddafi. They pressed her to offer instead a deferred-prosecution agreement, in which the firm would have acknowledged wrongdoing and paid a large fine. When she resisted, Mr Trudeau demoted her to minister of veterans’ affairs, the newspaper claimed.
Ms Wilson-Raybould quit the cabinet on February 12th. Her own account, in testimony before the House of Commons’ justice committee two weeks later, largely backed the newspaper’s. She testified that in meetings and phone calls Mr Trudeau and his officials repeatedly urged her to block a prosecution. Gerald Butts, the aide who resigned, disputed her account in testimony on March 6th, saying that he had asked her only to consider the consequences for 9,000 SNC-Lavalin workers.
Mr Trudeau’s defence has been feeble. He moved Ms Wilson-Raybould, he said, because another minister’s retirement had opened a spot that he needed to fill. Few Canadians believe that. Mr Trudeau admits to talking to her about the case. But he insists he did nothing unethical and points out that he did not order her to change her decision. The prosecution is going ahead. Ms Philpott’s resignation undermined those arguments. The “independence and integrity of our justice system” is at stake, she wrote in her resignation letter. As The Economist went to press Mr Trudeau was expected to explain further at a press conference.
“There’s no easy way out of this for the government,” says Darrell Bricker of Ipsos, a pollster. Most Canadians think Ms Wilson-Raybould’s story is more believable than the prime minister’s, polls show. Even though no one is accusing Mr Trudeau or his aides of doing anything criminal, the scandal has tarnished the Liberals’ image as “prince charmings who can do no wrong”, in the phrase once used by an opposition politician. Andrew Scheer, the leader of the Conservative Party, has demanded Mr Trudeau’s resignation. Groups representing women and indigenous Canadians are angry at his treatment of a female minister with aboriginal roots.
Mr Trudeau’s career is by no means finished. The Liberals’ lag in the polls is so far small. Neither Mr Scheer nor Jagmeet Singh, the leader of the left-wing New Democratic Party, looks to most Canadians like a credible prime minister. And voters have reasons to back the one they have. The unemployment rate of 5.8% is close to a 40-year low. Economic growth has been strong, though it is starting to weaken. That, plus the introduction of a child benefit in 2016, has led to a drop in poverty.
Most important for Mr Trudeau is that the remaining cabinet ministers have pledged to stick by him. Another high-profile resignation could be fatal.