Is this the end of the road for Justin Trudeau’s political career?

The Conservatives have won the unwinnable: electing Don Stewart as Member of Parliament in the Liberal stronghold of Toronto–St. Paul’s with 42 per cent of the vote.

This result is nothing less than dramatic, not only demonstrating the Conservative Party of Canada’s organizational capacity, but signalling the impending demise of Justin Trudeau’s Liberals.

Although Trudeau can remain Liberal leader, it’s increasingly difficult to justify a leadership that cannot rely on winning the safest of safe seats.

Compared to the 2021 federal election, the byelection consisted of a 19 per cent overall swing in the vote. The Liberals dropped from 49.22 per cent to 40.5 per cent according to preliminary results.

Although this doesn’t indicate a total collapse in support, in a riding where the party reliably wins over 50 per cent, it’s cause for serious concern for the Liberals. It mirrors their performance of 40.6 per cent in the dismal 2011 general election.

But this is perhaps not as significant as the increase of the Conservatives’ showing from 25.3 per cent in 2021 to 42.1 per cent last night, the greatest performance of a centre-right party since 1988 in Toronto-St. Paul’s.

Two-way contest

The results were otherwise bad for all additional parties, including the 84 Independents on the ballot. The New Democrat’s vote dropped to just under 11 per cent and the Greens received a mere 2.9 per cent, deeming both, for all intents and purposes, irrelevant. Toronto-St.Paul’s, as is increasingly the case in the rest of Canada, was a two-way contest.

The byelection’s results can be effectively interpreted as a referendum on Trudeau’s leadership and the effectiveness of the Liberal administration he manages.

Read more:
A byelection to watch: What the Toronto-St. Paul’s vote means for Justin Trudeau

Both the Liberals and Conservatives framed the vote this way, positioning themselves as the representatives of either continuity or change. As such, they demonstrated the scope of Canadians’ growing discontent, pervading sense of malaise and desire for change.

The result suggests that even the Liberal party’s most reliable base of voters — urban, wealthy, educated and socially progressive — were themselves prepared to signal the need for something new.

The reality is the Liberals have struggled to inspire public confidence when it comes to a range of economic and social problems that affect the day-to-day lives of Canadians, including those in cities: stagnating economic growth, unaffordable homes, inflation, a difficult cost-of-living environment, growing unemployment, open drug use and an increase in violent crime.

Trudeau’s unpopularity pertains not only to the government’s actual management of these issues, but the fact that the Liberals have been unable to articulate convincing reasons about why they should stay in power for the foreseeable future.

Many of their recent policy initiatives — including a national pharmacare program, increased capital gains tax and a Renter’s Bill of Rights — have failed to capture public attention.

Similarly, the government’s cascading range of attacks on the Conservative opposition — its own limited policy solutions, inevitable austerity, problematic stances on women’s rights and associations with the alt-right, to name a few examples — have failed to slow the Conservative Party’s momentum.

Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre speaks during a recent rally in Montréal.
THE CANADIAN PRESS/Christinne Muschi

Conservative organizational prowess

However, the Conservatives also won the byelection through their own efforts, particularly when it came to an incredibly effective local campaign.

The byelection’s higher-than-average turnout could indicate that a decisive factor was — as much as the depth of anti-Liberal sentiment — the Conservatives’ ability to ensure their supporters got out to vote. That would suggest the Liberals not only lack momentum among their own core supporters, but face an emboldened Conservative party with enough resources to actively contest areas that are conventionally seen as non-competitive.

A man in a blue Don Stewart T-shirt stares at a TV screen.
A Conservative supporter watches a split screen displaying byelection voting results and the Stanley Cup final.

The results don’t necessarily mean that once strongly Liberal urban areas are all bound to flip to the Conservatives. Byelections are unique events, and it is unlikely the Conservatives will be able to invest the same amount of attention and resources into similar ridings in a general election.

Instead, the real implications of Toronto-St Paul’s are summed up this way: If the party can gather this amount of support in midtown Toronto, what can it do in must-win suburban swing seats?

All indicators suggest the Liberals are headed towards a generational seismic defeat, repeating their performances of 1958, 1984 and 2011. Canadian political history indicates that this isn’t the end of the line for the Liberal party itself but, rather, the low point of a cycle.

As with its other historic defeats, the party could tap into its remarkable flexibility, engaging in a process of organizational and policy renewal that will return them to power in short order. The fact, however, is that Liberal Party support has been in gradual decline since the 1970s, and the party has less of a regional base of support to rebuild from.

Removing a leader

Other than a general election loss, there is no formal way for other Liberals — whether cabinet ministers, MPs or individual members — to remove a sitting leader. Trudeau stays if he wants to stay.

But given the current absence of any clear direction away from absolute defeat, the prime minister is bound to face increased pressure from his own party to resign. While these would not force a change, they could still make the task of governing difficult and personally draining.

Several prominent members and staff are likely to depart, and the party’s caucus — concerned they’ll lose their own seats — could grow more unco-operative or disagreeable.

Prime ministers have come back from periods of sustained unpopularity. The 1980 return to power of Trudeau’s father, Pierre Trudeau, for example, may be on the top of his mind. But, if successful, Trudeau’s comeback would be unprecedented: there is no successful case of reversing approval ratings as few as 28 per cent.

If the Liberals delay an election for another year, a leadership change may adjust their fortunes. But this is unlikely: eight years of incumbency is hard to reverse, and while many similar changes have been attempted before — Brian Mulroney to Kim Campbell or Pierre Trudeau to John Turner, for example — none has been successful at evading defeat.

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