As Trudeau confronts an anxious caucus, some Liberals say he needs to act swiftly

The email from national caucus chair Brenda Shanahan rejecting calls for an early in-person Liberal caucus meeting landed in members’ inboxes around 5 p.m. on the fourth of July.

Citing “scheduling logistics,” Shanahan officially dismissed public demands from Liberal MPs for an urgent gathering to discuss the fallout from the byelection loss in Toronto-St. Paul’s.

In the words of one Liberal MP, it went over “like a fart in church.”

“If you can’t even meet with your own caucus … how can you convince a country?” the MP said.

In addition to inspiring fragrant similes, Shanahan’s email pointed to another challenge Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his staff face as they attempt to ride out the current wave of caucus unrest.

Shanahan urged MPs discussing next steps after the byelection loss to respect caucus confidentiality and not leak to the media.

Her email was promptly leaked to the media.

Those in Liberal circles arguing against holding a full in-person caucus meeting say it would create a media spectacle. MPs would gather to vent, express frustration and point fingers. It would all get leaked to journalists and fuel a negative news cycle the Liberals are desperate to avoid.

But in the absence of such a meeting, MPs have been phoning or texting reporters to vent, express frustration and point fingers. Much of it is still getting leaked to the media without the pressure-release-valve effect an in-person meeting might provide.

CBC news has spoken with more than a dozen Liberal MPs, cabinet ministers, political staffers, campaign workers and organizers in the days since the surprise byelection loss to get a sense of the mood within the party.

Trudeau’s supporters argue that much of the anonymous agitation comes from a small group of well-known contrarians who are either not running again or resent being left out of cabinet.

They argue a substantial number of Liberal MPs — if not a clear majority — still support Justin Trudeau’s leadership and are content to ride this out.

The MPs in the middle

Even some of the prime minister’s harshest internal critics agree with that assessment. But they point to another substantial portion of the caucus — those in the middle who aren’t looking for Trudeau to resign but are looking for some kind of demonstrable change.

Those critics argue the prime minister has to get his caucus settled before he can work on his connection with voters. Their blunt assessment is that Trudeau can’t win over the country if it isn’t clear he can win over his caucus.

That caucus is united in wanting change and multiple Liberal MPs told CBC News that most caucus members seem willing to give the prime minister time to demonstrate that change.

WATCH: Some Liberal MPs may quit if Trudeau stays on

Some Liberal MPs may quit if Trudeau stays on, CBC News learns

Some Liberal caucus members may not run in the next election if Justin Trudeau remains party leader, a Liberal party source has told CBC News. The undisclosed Liberal MP believes ‘the prime minister’s leadership is damaged beyond repair.’

They say that how Trudeau responds — and how quickly he does so — will matter a great deal.

“There are people waiting to see how he reacts,” a second MP told CBC news. “If [the Prime Minister’s Office] waits until September, I don’t think it will work out well for them.”

That’s a common view among Liberals. Several caucus members told CBC News they hope to see demonstrable change or a clear signal of change within the next two weeks — certainly before the prime minister takes his summer vacation.

Insider warns that MPs might ‘head to the exits’

Even Trudeau loyalists warn that, if he intends to stay, he can’t offer small adjustments at the margins. They say they want to see significant changes in cabinet, a shakeup of senior staff, a massive pivot on the policy front — or a combination of all three.

But there’s no consensus in caucus on what needs to change — only on the need for Trudeau to settle on one or more of those three options if he’s sincere in his desire to lead the party into a fourth election.

Party insiders say that if the change isn’t swift or meaningful, those MPs in the middle won’t necessarily move to mutiny — but they might lose their motivation.

“It might not be pitchforks and torches,” the second MP said. “But long-serving MPs may just drift off and head to the exits.”

Multiple MPs told CBC News they fear the PMO will try to go slow and ride out the summer before confronting the internal problems at the next caucus meeting in September. Those MPs point to the party leadership’s failure to hold an immediate caucus meeting after the byelection — even a virtual one.

Efforts to downplay the byelection loss

They said they’re puzzled by the lack of a clear communications plan to respond to a possible loss in Toronto-St. Paul’s when the local campaign was reporting signs of trouble long before the 4 a.m. ballot count handed the 30-year Liberal seat to the Conservatives.

They said they’re also frustrated by an initial internal communications effort that seemed to focus more on downplaying the loss than attacking the problems that led to it.

In the days immediately following the byelection, the message from the PMO focused on promises to do things differently, to work the ground harder and make the messaging simpler.

Political staff were also urged by more senior staff not to speak too much among themselves about the loss. Sources say that at a recent meeting of government communications directors, a senior staff member suggested the loss “felt bigger than it really was.”

Toronto—St Paul's residents will head to the polls today to vote for a new member of parliament to represent their riding, which the Liberals have won in the last 10 elections. Liberal Party candidate Leslie Church, third from left, and Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau speak to supporters at a campaign volunteer event, in Toronto on Thursday, May 30, 2024.
Liberal candidate Leslie Church, third from left, and Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau speak to supporters at a campaign volunteer event in Toronto on Thursday, May 30, 2024. (Arlyn McAdorey/The Canadian Press)

That’s not the message MPs and political staff expected or wanted to hear after a byelection loss that brought to life the numbers they all had been seeing during a year of tough polls.

Trudeau met with the national caucus executive on Tuesday. Liberal sources say Trudeau thanked the caucus chairs for their feedback and the work they were doing to bring caucus concerns to the table. But the prime minister did not offer specifics about what he might do next, beyond promising that the outreach and listening would continue.

Trudeau keeping the caucus chats one-on-one

In recent days, the prime minister has been calling more MPs directly. So have his senior staffers. Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland recently hosted a meeting of the so-called 416 caucus in the backyard of her Toronto home. 

The consultations, it seems, will be in small groups or one-on-one. Some Liberals see that as the PMO’s attempt to control the conversation. They see the demands for a reckoning before the full national caucus meeting being answered with a centrally managed process.

It all leaves much of the caucus and the political staff anxious and needing reassurance. Without a clear signal of change, MPs and staff warn of a lack of motivation at a time when the party is facing another key byelection in David Lametti’s old Montreal riding of LaSalle-Emard-Verdun.

Lametti’s seat — like Carolyn Bennett’s former riding of Toronto St Paul’s — is only available because of the July 2023 cabinet shuffle, which was meant to add fresh blood and new energy to the prime minister’s inner circle.

At the time of that shuffle, the Liberals were worried about holding battleground seats in the suburbs of Canada’s biggest cities. But now the Conservatives have won a seat in the heart of Toronto and many Liberals say the NDP poses a threat in Montreal.

For the Liberals, it all makes La Salle-Emard-Verdun a must-win. Because losing a core Montreal seat after losing a core Toronto seat would risk turning the anxiety in the Liberal caucus into panic.

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