OTTAWA -- It might take a year or longer before it becomes clear to him, but Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will eventually realize he’s finished.

The freeze-framed results of last night’s pandemic election are just too much of a stain on his mediocre record to allow him to fight the next one.

Political leaders only get a fourth campaign shot when they are an undeniable party asset tracking toward a probable big win.

If the election proved anything amid the pointlessness of it all, it’s that Trudeau is a personal liability to his party who will bring rising tension to a fractured Parliament where three terms of rancour will fester anew among the same old, same old faces.

Complicating his ability to constructive governance is how his campaign strained national unity with attacks on premiers, stoked fear and loathing of those choosing not to vaccinate or rebelling against lockdowns and whipped up antagonism against those who hesitate to embrace his progressive policies.

So a snowy walk toward retirement in late 2022 or early 2023 is in play, even though he clearly wanted to cap his career with a majority win before heading off to pocket millions of consulting or speaking dollars in the private sector.

And if he doesn’t walk willingly, leader wannabes like deputy prime minister Chrystia Freeland and former Bank of Canada governor Mark Carney will undoubtedly give him a gentle push down the plank.

Now, while the torrents of laments over the monetary waste of Trudeau’s vanity vote will quickly become tiresome, we must pause to note that, at $300-million-per-gained Liberal seat, it’s an eyewatering waste of resources even by this government’s toss-money-around standards.

Someone better at math than me will likely crunch the numbers to find out how many boil water advisories could be lifted or vaccines procured or carbon-absorbing trees planted for the electoral price of procuring each additional seat in the Liberal lineup.

But I digress.

This election was mostly about leadership – and the leader referendum results are more interesting than the static seat count.

As I speculated, Justin Trudeau will leave even though his "victory" speech gave no hint of departing in this mandate. That’s hardly surprising. Only a fool would crack open the emergency exit door when you’ve just been re-elected prime minister.

But the bad look will linger on him in public mind and stew in the confines of his own caucus.

The public will find it hard to shake the self-possessed image Trudeau projected in calling an all-about-him vote as a fourth coronavirus wave went tidal and our Afghanistan allies huddled in ditches awaiting a Canadian rescue that didn’t arrive.

And by pointlessly pulling the parliamentary pin just a month before the rookie wave of Liberal MPs elected in 2015 would qualify for their pot-of-gold pension for life will not elevate loyalty levels in caucus.

Besides, Liberals surely know they were, above all other factors, simply lucky and that Justin Trudeau had little to do with them gaining seats.

The Conservatives lost more than a few ridings to a splintered vote with the People’s Party. The Liberals also put a few wins in their column in places where the Greens didn’t field a candidate. And Trudeau was gifted an issue from terminally-bloodied Alberta Premier Jason Kenney by connecting the Conservative consequences of going wide open to Erin O’Toole, who did himself no favours with a flaccid reaction to that province’s fourth wave emergency.

Speaking of O’Toole’s leadership, he now faces a struggle to continue leading a party confronting an identity crisis.

O’Toole shunned the harder-edged Harper-era ideology in favour of a kinder, gentler, bending-with-the-wind conservatism.

The result was an invigorated People’s Party threat on the far right and an erosion of seats in the Alberta heartland with no compensatory payoff in the moderate motherlode of Metro Toronto.

While that’s a devastating hit on his shove toward the political spectrum’s center and will undoubtedly lead to the madness of knives being sharpened for a back-stabbing take down, sanity must prevail and give him a second electoral chance.

Erin O’Toole is, after all, no disposable lightweight like Andrew Scheer.

And the unappetizing option of choosing between most-likely replacements like veteran MP Pierre Poilievre and impressive rookie Leslyn Lewis would merely serve up a fresh buffet of fear-factors for the Liberals to dine on.

NDP leader Jagmeet Singh fell far short of expectations with no seat gains, but with star candidate Avi Lewis losing badly in B.C., there’s no prominent challenger to his likable force of personality. Bet heavily on him sticking around for the next electoral fight.

Finally, and sadly, Green party leader Annamie Paul must immediately resign. As a leader who could only field candidates in two-thirds of the ridings, admitted her presence would be a liability to her own candidates and finished a distant fourth in the Toronto riding she devoted her entire campaign to winning, well, voter repudiation simply doesn’t get any clearer than that.

Before signing off, a word about the hidden heroes of this election – the tens of thousands of voters who stood in hours-long lineups, in some cases long after the polls were closed and the results known, to cast their ballots.

This was an election without a compelling ballot box question called by a prime minister in the whimsical pursuit of greater power. And yet they defiantly persevered to participate.

An election about nothing proved something very heartening about our democracy. It’s stronger than our leaders.

That’s the bottom line