OTTAWA - The imminent departure of Stephen Harper's chief of staff could be just the first tremor in a pre-election shakeup of the prime minister's team.

Reports that Ian Brodie plans to leave Harper's office by the end of June fanned speculation Thursday that more changes - including a possible cabinet shuffle - may be in the works as the minority Conservative government girds for an election as early as the fall.

"We are now at most 16 months away from an election," said former Harper chief of staff Tom Flanagan, referring to legislation that requires an election in October 2009 if the opposition parties don't topple the government before then.

"So, I think any rational prime minister under the circumstances will be gearing up towards an election."

Flanagan, who now teaches political science at the University of Calgary, stressed he has no inside information on what Harper may be planning. But he said a cabinet shuffle and a throne speech in the autumn would both be good ideas for a government intent on putting its best foot forward for an election.

A small shuffle would help "to bulletproof yourself, take away any potential weaknesses," he said.

Flanagan declined to name weak ministers who may be due for reassignment. But speculation has been rife in Tory circles that Foreign Affairs Minister Maxime Bernier, after a series of blunders and controversy over his ex-girlfriend's ties to outlaw bikers in Quebec, will be pushed aside or even out of cabinet altogether.

As well, Tories have been whispering that Treasury Board President Vic Toews, embroiled in a messy divorce, has fallen into disfavour with the prime minister.

As for proroguing Parliament and bringing it back with a new speech from the throne sometime in the fall, Flanagan said that might be a useful way to refocus attention on the government's agenda and provide some respite from trench warfare with scandal-obsessed opposition parties. A throne speech might also provide an opportunity to "road test ideas for an election."

On the down side, Flanagan said a throne speech could delay the progress of legislation that Harper would like to see passed before an election.

On another front, Flanagan noted there have been rumours that Harper's communications director, Sandra Buckler, may have to take a leave of absence due to health and family reasons. But Buckler, back at work after surgery only a few weeks ago, said there is "not a drop" of truth to such rumours.

Buckler refused to comment on reports that Brodie will depart by the end of June. But sources say he will be replaced by Guy Giorno, a former chief of staff to erstwhile Ontario Tory premier Mike Harris.

Flanagan said Giorno, an architect of Harris's two majority election victories, is a good choice for a prime minister preparing for an election. He noted that Giorno has been working on the campaign platform and his new post will help ensure that the platform fits seamlessly with the government's agenda.

He doubted, however, that Giorno's arrival will herald any radical departure in the substance or style of the Harper government. Indeed, he said the choice of Giorno, an ideological "soulmate," suggests Harper wants continuity.

"Everything emanates from Stephen himself so people come and go but the basic tone is always set by the leader. So the hallmarks of the Harper approach of a lot of confidentiality and message discipline and so on, I don't think any of that will change," Flanagan said.

"It might be a little more kissy-kissy with the media in running up to the election but that will be more superficial than fundamental."

Brodie is at the centre of a controversy surrounding a leaked diplomatic memo that suggested U.S. presidential hopeful Barack Obama was not serious about his vow to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement.

Media interest in the issue was sparked after Brodie candidly told some CTV reporters that rival presidential candidate Hillary Clinton's camp had assured Canadian officials she wouldn't reopen the trade deal despite her tough talk to the contrary.

Harper, who ordered an investigation into the leaked memo, has reportedly received the report on the matter and will release it publicly soon. However, sources close to Brodie say his departure has nothing to do with any adverse findings in the report.

Rather, they say Brodie has signalled for months that he wanted to return to his job as a professor at the University of Western Ontario.

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