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The hole that Gerry Butts leaves behind

Stephen Maher: The second act of l’affaire SNC-Lavalin could be devastating for Trudeau, and it’s not clear he’ll be better off without his trusted advisor
Gerald Butts, principal secretary to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, arrives during the First Ministers Meeting in Ottawa on Tuesday, Oct. 3, 2017. Butts has resigned amid allegations that the Prime Minister’s Office interfered to prevent criminal prosecution of SNC-Lavalin. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

Last week, I wrote here that Justin Trudeau needed a fall guy to take the blame in l’affaire SNC-Lavalin. Today, we learned who that fall guy is: principal secretary Gerald Butts, a friend and political ally of Trudeau since the two were shaggy undergrads at McGill University.

Trudeau needed to throw the mob a head, to release pressure, allow the government to show that it’s done something, appease his rattled caucus and get a bit of room to manoeuvre.

Butts’s departure certainly serves a short-term political goal, allowing Trudeau to signal that he is regrouping for the election ahead, but we are likely only at the beginning of the second act of l’Affaire SNC-Lavalin, and it is not clear that Trudeau will be better off without Butts, his capable and trusted lieutenant, in the scenes as yet unwritten.

There have been three big unforced errors in Trudeau’s government: the Aga Khan trip, the passage to India and this much more serious business, the allegation that Trudeau, Butts or someone working for them pressured Jody Wilson-Raybould to end the fraud prosecution of SNC-Lavalin.

The Aga Khan trip demonstrated bad judgment from Trudeau, in that he was excessively secretive and insufficiently lawyerly about a legal question, which resulted in a finding that he violated the ethics code by cavorting with a billionaire, hardly the best message for a government that got elected promising to act in the interests of the middle class and those working hard to join it.

READ MORE: Are these the ‘answers’ of a Prime Minister who’s done nothing wrong?

But Trudeau was hardly the first politician to struggle to understand that you don’t stop being a politician when you are on vacation.

Then there was the passage to India, the drawn-out subcontinental family trip where Trudeau behaved like a celebrity—like someone whose costume changes would be anticipated like those of a British prince—and not a politician, whose primary concern ought to be practical business.

Still, that looked to be the kind of thing that you could put down to narcissism and high spirits, the kind of thing his team could fix once they were faced with such glaring evidence of their miscalculation.

Both incidents made me question the relationship between Trudeau and Butts, and Trudeau and chief of staff Katie Telford.

I knew Butts and Telford before Trudeau’s election as experienced and savvy political operatives, people who possessed better judgment than was displayed in either of these misbegotten voyages. I wrote at the time that it was possible they were too close to Trudeau to give him the stern warnings he needed.

This third large unforced error is different in kind and degree from the first two, which were most worrying not because of the fallout, which was containable, but because they hinted at sloppy thinking in the highest office of the land.

This SNC-Lavalin story is leagues worse and could bring down the government.

Until the Globe and Mail’s Bob Fife broke this story, Trudeau looked like he was headed for a fairly easy re-election campaign. With the NDP going nowhere, and Andrew Scheer distracted by Maxime Bernier, things looked pretty good for Trudeau. That is much less certain today, after the resignation of Butts, for two reasons.

First, it suggests that there are more shoes to drop, that whatever conversation Wilson-Raybould and Butts had about the prosecution of SNC-Lavalin may be difficult to explain.

In his resignation letter, Butts wrote that “I categorically deny the accusation that I or anyone else in [Trudeau’s] office pressured Ms. Wilson-Raybould. We honoured the unique role of the Attorney General.”

It seems likely that Wilson-Raybould will eventually give a different version of her conversation with Butts. We don’t know when that will happen, what she will say or how voters, ethics commissioners or other lawful authorities will weigh the different stories, but the implications could hardly be more serious, since political actors are not supposed to interfere in prosecutions, no matter how many lobbyists a company hires, or how many engineers it employs in, ahem, vote-rich Quebec.

Secondly, the departure of Butts means that Trudeau will not have him by his side, for the first time in his career.

Opponents and critics liked to mock the relationship, calling Gerald Prime Minister Butts, and suggesting he was the marionette pulling the strings of the empty-headed puppet in the big job. Whatever the truth of their relationship, it has worked pretty well. When they started on this project, Trudeau was the third party critic for amateur sport. He now has a worldwide brand. Everybody knows Butts was a key part of that process, the result of many years of planning and plot hatching. Now he is gone, and he will leave a huge hole.

In this way, this dismal saga resembles the Mike Duffy affair—another Fife scoop, by the way—although this is potentially more serious.

The Duffy saga forced out chief of staff Nigel Wright, who, like Butts, was someone with a serious Rolodex and an impressive resume before he entered government, someone who could get calls returned because of who he was, not his job title. Without him, Harper seemed to lean too much on the advice of a bickering palace guard that could not warn him away from his worst instincts.

Depending on how this saga plays out, on what Canadians end up believing about what Butts said to Wilson-Raybould, this government could already be doomed, careening toward the date with voters without a hope of winning.

If, on the other hand, the facts are not so bad, Trudeau may be able to staunch the bleeding and change the subject.

To do that, he will have to find someone capable to replace Butts and pay heed to whatever stern warnings that person delivers.