OTTAWA - Frank McKenna has some sobering counsel for federal Liberals: They could be in opposition for a long time and there is no Messianic leader who can lead them quickly out of the wilderness.
The advice from a man once thought to be the party's best hope for a speedy return to power comes as Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff continues to shake up his inner circle in the wake of repeated miscues, plunging poll numbers and dispiriting byelection results.
Jill Fairbrother, Ignatieff's director of communications, is the latest senior member of the leader's inner circle to depart. She cleaned out her office this week and informed colleagues she's returning to Toronto with her partner, Ian Davey.
Fairbrother's exit had been expected since Davey was turfed last month as Ignatieff's chief of staff. The door was left slightly ajar for Davey to serve the leader in some other capacity, but that door has now been firmly closed.
Since Davey's abrupt and brutally handled exit, two other senior political operatives - Mark Sakamoto and Alexis Levine - have voluntarily left. And a number of junior staff members were let go on Thursday.
The exodus is expected to continue, possibly as early as Monday, when Peter Donolo officially takes over as Ignatieff's new chief of staff. Insiders say Donolo, one-time communications director for former prime minister Jean Chretien, has been given carte blanche to reorganize the leader's office.
McKenna said Ignatieff is doing the right thing, surrounding himself with more experienced operatives and "learning the craft" of politics. But he warned it will take time to bear fruit.
"I just think (Liberals) need to be patient," McKenna said in an interview to promote a new biography of him, written by journalist Harvey Sawler.
When the top job in the federal Liberal party fell open in 2006 and again in 2008, McKenna was touted by many Grits as the saviour who could best vault them back to power. McKenna, now a top executive with TD Bank, declined both times.
"I never thought it would be easy and I never thought I was a Messiah," he said.
Indeed, his decision to stay on the sidelines was at least partly due to his realization that rebuilding the party would take years of painstaking, relentless work.
"When you've been in power for a long stretch, the tide goes out and it goes out a long way," he says now.
McKenna said Ignatieff has the intellect, patriotism and work ethic needed to turn the party around. But the former Harvard academic and journalist needs time to "develop the feelers" or instincts that guide a leader through political landmines.
He also needs time for public opinion to sour on Stephen Harper's minority Conservative government, McKenna added, citing the truism that "governments defeat themselves."