It was not long after Jim Prentice announced his impending departure from federal politics that speculation about his leadership aspirations began anew. But it’s entirely possible, perhaps even probable, that Ottawa has seen the last of him.
Explaining the decision to accept a senior executive position with CIBC, Prentice said it was merely a matter of time. “When I entered federal politics in 2001 I made a commitment that my time in politics would last eight to 10 years,” he said. “It has now been nine years and it is time for me to pursue new opportunities outside of public life.” A well-regarded cabinet minister who ran for the Progressive Conservative party leadership in 2003 (finishing second to Peter MacKay), he was sometimes thought to be a potential successor to Stephen Harper. That speculation will not end with Prentice’s exit, but if he stays away he would do so in good company.
Well-regarded Liberal cabinet ministers Brian Tobin and John Manley, as well as New Brunswick premiers Frank McKenna and Bernard Lord, have all left politics over the last decade to pursue careers in the private sector. All have been considered potential leadership candidates at the federal level, but none have so far returned to public life. “You can earn a healthy living, you can still exercise significant influence over the public policy debate and you’re also looked upon more favourably when you’re out of office as opposed to when you’re in,” says Tim Powers, a Conservative strategist. “When you’ve gone through the meat grinder that comes with this life, stepping out and accruing the benefits of the escape can be awful hard to leave.”
The returning hero is an often romanticized archetype, but it is more myth than reality. Jim Dinning, a former cabinet minister in Alberta who left for the private sector, was upset when he returned in 2006 to seek leadership of the provincial Progressive Conservatives. Ernie Eves, an Ontario cabinet minister, departed politics briefly before winning the leadership of the province’s Tories, but then lost in a general election. John Turner quit as Pierre Trudeau’s finance minister in 1975 and won the party leadership upon returning in 1984, but was then trounced twice in elections by Brian Mulroney. If Prentice were to desire a return, he might refer to the generally unrepeatable career of Jean Chrétien. Chrétien, then a veteran cabinet minister, left politics in 1986, but returned to succeed Turner in 1990 on his way to becoming Canada’s 20th prime minister, though he might be considered, in this context, the exception that proves the rule.
Ken Boessenkool, a former senior policy adviser to Harper, and also a policy chair for Dinning in his bid for the Alberta Tory leadership, says Prentice exits with a stellar reputation. “He’s been indispensable to Harper,” says Boesenkool. But moving back and forth between politics and the private sector is a tricky balance. “You can stay in too long, and be just a politician,” Boessenkool says. “Or you can stay out too long, and lose your edge politically.”