In the end, Alberta Premier Jason Kenney called his own bluff.
After insisting he’d stay on as leader of the United Conservative Party with as little as a 50-per-cent-plus-one plurality in the recent leadership review, he announced that he would resign when the result was just slightly higher than that.
Mr. Kenney’s decision seems to have come as a shock to just about everyone in Alberta. It wasn’t. He is many things – but a stupid man he is not. When the result of the weeks-long mail-in balloting process was 51.4 per cent in favour of him staying on as leader, it was over. He likely had a number in his head that would have allowed him to remain in the job, and it was surely much higher than that.
He probably needed 60 per cent or more to stave off the caucus infighting that had destabilized his hold on power. Even that might not have been enough – such was the determination of many to see him removed.
It really is a remarkable fall from grace in a province whose politics are increasingly defined by acrimony and upheaval. When Mr. Kenney left federal politics with the ambition to unite the two conservative parties in Alberta – the Progressive Conservatives, who had governed the province for 43 years, and the Wildrose Party, which represented rural interests and those with stricter conservative values – many believed he had little chance of success.
And yet, through persuasion and hard work, he did it. And then he won the 2019 election by a landslide under the UCP banner he created. At the time, it looked like he might govern for years and years.
But Mr. Kenney fell victim to the one thing that those who achieve the unimaginable often do: Hubris.
He was being hailed as the saviour of conservatism, not just in Alberta but in Canada. He became the most influential conservative voice in the country. He was the smartest guy in the room – at least he thought so – and mostly listened to himself when it came to making big decisions. He alienated many inside his caucus, especially MLAs who represented rural parts of the province.
The pandemic complicated things. The price of oil was still at historic lows, and the province’s books were a mess. The issues were so big, so tough, that even the smartest guy in the room couldn’t solve them. He seemed preoccupied with settling scores, picking fights. He was always angry at something or someone. His politics became small and petty.
Even his go-to tactic – lobbing a grenade in the direction of Liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau – wasn’t working for him any more. The public turned on him. And great swaths of his party were right there with them.
And so here we are, with Alberta’s governing party preparing for a leadership race, with a provincial election a year away.
Who knows who will emerge victorious? Former Wildrose leaders Brian Jean and Danielle Smith will throw their names in. Others in Mr. Kenney’s cabinet will too. Former and current federal Conservative MPs Rona Ambrose and Michelle Rempel Garner, both from Alberta, will be wooed. Of the two, I could see Ms. Rempel Garner possibly putting her hand up. She would instantly become the front-runner.
However, whoever wins will have the same problem Mr. Kenney had when he took over: the UCP is an amalgam of two political philosophies, two ideological forces. They are often at odds. To put it another way, the old Wildrose forces often disagree and resent the old Progressive Conservative types. Their interests aren’t aligned. They don’t like one another. Old war wounds have not healed and may never heal.
That is a tricky situation to manage as leader. Mr. Kenney failed that test – and he is seen as a pretty savvy political operator. Managing those two factions is the toughest job a UCP leader has.
Mr. Kenney led arguably the most right-wing government in the country. He represented hope for those who believe there is a role in this country for governments pushing a more traditional, small-c conservatism, and many of his policy initiatives were emblazoned with that philosophy. If that approach could thrive in Alberta, it might thrive in other parts of the country, or so the thinking went.
This is a setback for anyone holding those aspirations.
Many will see his decision as a victory for Rachel Notley and the NDP. Not so fast: polls showed she had a big lead over a Jason Kenney-led UCP, but the numbers were more even with others leading the governing party.
This story is a long way from over. In many ways, the best part is yet to come.
The Canadian Press
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