Opinion

Were you pushed or did you jump?

Were you pushed or did you jump?

That is the obvious question faced by a political leader who decides, rather unexpectedly, to leave politics. Political leaders such as Premier Brian Pallister, who confirmed Sunday he will retire from politics Wednesday.

Did Pallister finally realize, after months of careful consideration, he was not doing himself and his party any favours by staying on? Possibly, although there is strong evidence that even as he was reflecting on his place in the political universe, there were already many hands pushing him towards the exit.

Right now, the only thing that can be said with certainty is there is no easy explanation for how, in the space of just six weeks, Pallister went from defiantly in control to sheepishly in retreat.

The beginning of the end is pretty easy to identify.

In the week's before MLA Eileen Clarke's resignation as Indigenous Affairs Minister, and for several weeks afterwards, sources confirmed Pallister sought one-on-one and small group meetings with cabinet ministers to gauge their support.  (Tim Smith/The Brandon Sun files)

In the week's before MLA Eileen Clarke's resignation as Indigenous Affairs Minister, and for several weeks afterwards, sources confirmed Pallister sought one-on-one and small group meetings with cabinet ministers to gauge their support. (Tim Smith/The Brandon Sun files)

On July 14, Tory MLA Eileen Clarke resigned her post as Indigenous Affairs Minister to protest Pallister's comments absolving prairie settlers of any involvement in the destruction of Indigenous culture. As a longtime friend and close colleague, Clarke's resignation clearly shook Pallister's confidence.

It did not help that Clarke's replacement, Alan Lagimodiere, immediately self-destructed by trying to rationalize the damage done to Indigenous people by residential schools. Several other members of his cabinet and caucus went to social media to condemn comments made by the premier and his new minister.

Pallister disappeared from public view for an astounding 18 days after that. Could this be when he realized it was time to go? As it turned out, he was already getting strong signals that his control on the government and party was waning.

In the week's before Clarke's resignation and for several weeks afterwards, sources confirmed Pallister sought one-on-one and small group meetings with cabinet ministers to gauge their support. Plummeting popularity and mounting criticism of the premier's pandemic response were causing anxiety in caucus and cabinet. These meetings took on added significance after Clarke resigned; Pallister began to fear she might trigger a stampede of similar resignations.

It was not clear to the sources whether Pallister was seeking a vote of confidence, or just assurances he would not be blindsided again.

It has been theorized one of these meetings gave some senior cabinet ministers, including former health minister Heather Stefanson and Deputy Premier Kelvin Goertzen in particular, a chance to tell Pallister it was time to go. It is clear now that when Stefanson had her meeting with her boss, she was already working diligently behind the scenes to marshal the support of two-thirds of the Tory caucus for her own leadership bid.

It is clear now that when Stefanson had her meeting with her boss, she was already working diligently behind the scenes to marshal the support of two–thirds of the Tory caucus for her own leadership bid.

Even if Pallister did not know exactly how many MLAs were supporting Stefanson, it should have been clear to him at this moment he was losing control. That fear would have been amplified by growing rumours that some caucus members, including backbencher MLA Shannon Martin, were preparing to table a formal leadership review motion at the retreat in Brandon.

By this time, even Pallister had to realize he was facing political checkmate. Several highly placed sources said in addition to continuing the meetings with cabinet ministers, he used the 18-day hiatus to discuss his predicament with wife Esther, his principal adviser in life and in politics. Many within the party believe it was Esther who ultimately convinced Pallister to relent.

And so it was that on Aug. 10, he surprised many by announcing he would leave politics at a date yet to be determined.

Senior government and caucus sources confirmed Pallister gave no advance warning he would use Brandon as a backdrop to announce his retirement. In fact, the majority of political staff working back in Winnipeg did not know what he was going to do until mid-morning, less than two hours before a scheduled media availability, when a copy of his retirement announcement was circulated.

At that announcement, Pallister did not take questions, nor would he define a timetable for his departure. It was initially assumed he would stay long enough to chair a meeting of first ministers in Winnipeg starting on Oct. 5, an honour that would serve as the perfect denouement for his political career.

But as it turned out, Pallister would be denied that opportunity thanks, in large part, to something known in Tory circles as "the letter."

Party and government sources said a group of party operatives wrote an open letter asking Pallister to step down. The letter was to have been signed by a combination of "business leaders, financial supporters, grassroots supporters and former staff," according to several sources involved in recruiting signatories.

It is unclear whether Pallister actually saw the letter, or was just warned that it was coming. But, it seems impossible he did not know of its existence and the potential embarrassment it might cause him.

There will always be some mystery about why Pallister didn't just pick a date for his departure when he first made the announcement in Brandon. But, in the end, the result is more or less the same.

As of Wednesday, for better or worse, Brian Pallister will be gone.

Not soon enough for some, but just soon enough to claim just a little bit of dignity. And that's all any besieged political leader can ask for.

dan.lett@freepress.mb.ca

Dan Lett

Dan Lett
Columnist

Born and raised in and around Toronto, Dan Lett came to Winnipeg in 1986, less than a year out of journalism school with a lifelong dream to be a newspaper reporter.

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