Maxime Bernier was a minister with rising star written all over him. All the right stuff. He was young, handsome, best dresser in the Commons and he hailed from Quebec. The lady? Well, she just added to the allure.
But there were suspicions from the start. You could hear the empty-suit talk in the corridors, the all-hat no-cattle references.
In the cabinet of Stephen Harper, where access to ministers is minimal, it was hard to tell which version was correct.
But the verdict came last night. The shooting star has exited the Harper galaxy.
Mr. Bernier, who was promoted too soon, had to go. In the sensitive post of Foreign Affairs, there can be no suspicion of carelessness with classified documents. Mr. Harper said Mr. Bernier had failed to uphold his promise to protect cabinet confidences. That's serious business.
Only hours earlier, House Leader Peter Van Loan had told the Commons that Mr. Bernier was doing a terrific job. Mr. Harper had chided the opposition all along for raising a matter so frivolous as someone's former girlfriend.
Turns out, the opposition was doing its job and the government was being customarily evasive.
This is a tough blow for the Harper team. The Prime Minister has put much political emphasis on winning support in Quebec. He needed a star minister to showcase and to sell the Afghanistan war to Quebeckers. Mr. Bernier appeared to be the one.
But Mr. Harper put good politics ahead of good sense. Mr. Bernier had no grounding in foreign affairs, little experience in the world. In that sense, he was set up for the fall. In other ministries, like the Industry portfolio, where he served for a short time, you can hide your shortcomings. In Foreign Affairs, you can't.
His relationship with Julie Couillard was one of several mistakes he made.
In April, he was embarrassed for asking for the resignation of Kandahar Governor Asadullah Khalid. This week, he was accused of making an empty-handed promise to an aid agency giving relief to cyclone-stricken Myanmar . In the House of Commons, he often appeared out of his depth. Foreign Affairs officials began circulating rumours that he was in over his head. "A nice guy, and bright enough," one said this week. "But Foreign Affairs isn't his thing. He has no feel for it."
Peter MacKay, his predecessor, was equally without background when he took the foreign posting. But Mr. MacKay was a quick learner, and, Foreign Affairs officials said, a hard worker. Mr. Bernier, they said, didn't put in the hours.
The Bernier resignation comes at a bad moment. Mr. Harper was just setting off on a tour of foreign capitals. He was planning on shuffling his cabinet, but not for a few weeks. It was likely he would have eased Mr. Bernier out at that time while insisting he had done nothing wrong.
But the sudden exit upsets the timetable, and, depending on revelations in regard to classified documents and cabinet confidences, could lead to greater embarrassments.
Mr. Harper was reputed to be a leader who ran a tight ship. On the Bernier file, he has shown little evidence of tightness.
The Prime Minister, in a government less than 2½ years in office, has already had two big cabinet shuffles. He had to dump Defence Minister Gordon O'Connor last year after a series of gaffes. Before that he had to let Rona Ambrose go from the highly important Environment Ministry.
In all three cases, he had appointed ministers who weren't up to the task. In the case of Foreign Affairs, the Prime Minister didn't have a whole lot of choice. His caucus lacked men or women of worldly experience. But in going so far as to pick a total greenhorn, he surrendered too much to his political instincts and now pays the price.