Jean Chrétien may have been at the nadir of his popularity and effectiveness when he left public life. But he knew to get out while he was still undefeated, after three consecutive majority government victories, and with Paul Martin on the verge of taking over his party.
Dalton McGuinty also knew when to leave --- after three consecutive election wins (the first Ontario Liberal premier to do that in 128 years), and before losing the confidence of the minority parliament.
The list continues: William Davis, Peter Lougheed, Brian Mulroney, Pierre Trudeau, Mike Harris, Ralph Klein, Frank McKenna, John Robarts, Leslie Frost, Gordon Campbell --- all first ministers who left their jobs on their terms, rather than running the risk of having the voters show them the door (although in some cases such as Davis, Lougheed, and Robarts, the possibility of that happening was next to nil).
Will Stephen Harper, like former Ontario premier Dalton McGuinty, retire from public life after three consecutive wins?
Every good first minister has his or her eye on the clock. They have to. They need to consider whether they have another gruelling election campaign in them, and whether they can continue to govern for another three or four years thereafter.
Stephen Harper is one of the smartest political tacticians ever to live at 24 Sussex. And so, the following will not have escaped his attention:
* This summer, Harper will have been a member of parliament for eleven consecutive years and 15 altogether (he served a previous term from 1993-97, before leaving, temporarily as it turns out).
* This summer, Harper will have been leader of his party (Canadian Alliance/Conservative) for eleven years.
* This summer, Harper will have been prime minister for seven-and-a-half years, which may not sound like a long time, but it puts him in ninth place (out of 22 PMs) overall in terms of tenure. He'd have to spend another year and a half in office to pass Louis St. Laurent, who's eighth on the list.
* This summer, the Conservatives would still have almost two more years in power before having to call an election. Assuming a nine month long leadership campaign culminating in a leadership convention in the spring of 2014, that would still give Harper's successor almost a year to put his/her own stamp on the party. Previous leaders who have inherited their first ministers' positions have complained about not having enough time to establish a relationship with the voters (think Kim Campbell in 1993 or John Turner in 1984). A summertime departure for Harper would provide adequate time for his successor.
Having said all that, let's acknowledge that Stephen Harper clearly enjoys the job and unlike many politicians who've been around for a while, doesn't appear to have any burning desire to leave to make his fortune in the private sector.
Harper also has no obvious successor who is nipping at his heels to get out, unlike the Jean Chrétien-Paul Martin situation. And we know he is an uber-competitive type, who may relish an election fight against two new opponents (Tom Mulcair and presumably Justin Trudeau).
On April 30, Harper will turn 54 years old --- in some respects, an ideal age to leave on top having won three consecutive elections and refashioned the country in a significant way. He's young and vigorous enough to embark on a new career.
If this scenario has occurred to me, you can bet it's occurred to others in Ottawa, who will be looking for every little clue to see whether the PM is tipping his hand. One sign could be Harper's travel schedule. Outgoing leaders love to take one last trip around the globe as a kind of farewell tour.
Has Stephen Harper got a fifth election campaign as leader in him?
I have no idea what the PM is going to do. But I do know he's a man who would prefer to go out on top, rather than through an election defeat. There's only one way to ensure that, and that's leave before that 2015 grand consultation with the people.
But maybe, just maybe, he'd relish the chance to take on the son of Pierre Trudeau, and finally bury the Liberal Party of Canada for good. Fun maybe, but also awfully risky. Canadians, as we saw in the last election, can be a fickle bunch and who knows, even if they're relatively satisfied with the Conservatives, they may just want something new.
Let's watch it all unfold.