On April 9, the experiment that is the United Conservative Party (UCP) may very well come to an end when UCP Leader Jason Kenney faces a leadership review. Thousands of party members will descend upon Red Deer and render judgement on a chaotic year of caucus infighting and sagging poll numbers. Buckle up, folks, we are in for a very bumpy ride on the road to Red Deer.
Brian Jean’s victory in this week’s Fort McMurray-Lac La Biche byelection gives tremendous momentum to party members hoping to vote Kenney out, but this victory is also personal for Jean.
In the not-so-distant past, Kenney trounced Jean in the 2017 UCP leadership race that divided many Alberta conservatives. Jean’s disappointment was obvious to everyone in the room that night, especially when Kenney invited his two opponents on stage in an awkward display of supposed unity. Kenney was all smiles, but Jean’s face was understandably gloomy in that moment before hundreds of UCP members. After that night, Kenney offered Jean whatever role he wished within the UCP opposition. Jean refused and then resigned his seat as a UCP MLA within months.
The wounds caused by the leadership race have been festering for years with allegations of voter fraud and an RCMP investigation that continues with no resolution in sight. When Laila Goodridge suddenly resigned as a UCP MLA, Jean seized the opportunity to return. Since then, he’s framed his nomination and byelection victories as referendums on Kenney’s leadership.
Jean’s victory is yet another headache for Kenney. For example, to what degree can Kenney and his house leadership team delay an official swearing in? No doubt, Kenney would prefer to avoid the “friendly fire” that comes with having Jean in the legislature. But, by delaying the inevitable swearing in of Jean as an MLA, Kenney risks looking petty and vindictive to a membership that will soon be deciding his fate.
No doubt, Kenney and his inner circle have been planning (hopefully not in the Sky Palace) for this moment for months.
The leader’s tolerance for dissent seems to change with the moment, as two UCP MLAs were tossed from caucus for openly questioning his leadership, while others who were organizing a vote of non-confidence last September remain.
Jean has been quite open about his dissatisfaction with Kenney, his inner circle, and the direction of this government. And yet he was allowed to run as a UCP MLA — something the leader would have to sign off on.
More significantly, Jean is a co-founding leader of the UCP; they forged this party together over roughly six weeks in the spring of 2017. Does that count for anything these days? I guess we’re about to find out.
In the roughly two years that I worked directly with him, I never got the sense that Kenney would allow his fate to be decided by factors he cannot control. It was never a question of whether or not we would win; it was always how much would we win by. In the PC leadership race, we won with over 80 per cent of the delegates. We won the unity vote with 95 per cent approval from PC and Wildrose members. In the UCP leadership race, we won with over 60 per cent of the vote, and, just over a month later, we won the Calgary-Lougheed byelection with over 70 per cent of the vote.
Make no mistake, Kenney remains a remarkable campaigner, but now he’s backed into a proverbial corner by his own party and MLAs (Hi Erin O’Toole!).
Before resigning, former premiers Ralph Klein, Ed Stelmach, and Alison Redford all enjoyed sizable majorities of support in their respective leadership reviews. Kenney, however, has lowered his own threshold to the absolute minimum: 50 per cent plus one. Successful politics is about managing expectations, and Kenney’s expectations now suggest that he’s not confident he can win at all.
Where are the rallies?
Up until the pandemic hit, Kenney was able to muster enthusiastic crowds of hundreds of Albertans with just a few days’ notice. Now that all COVID restrictions have been eliminated, where are the rallies in support of the UCP leader?
A Facebook Live event or a radio call-in show is a poor substitute for an energetic political rally with good visuals that portray enthusiasm heading into the vote.
Another remarkable omission, according to the internal emails I’ve seen and those that have been leaked, is the complete absence of volunteers in a call centre helping to “get out the vote” for Kenney. A campaign without volunteers is a campaign circling the drain.
Albertans should brace for a period of political unpredictability over the next few weeks, and even beyond April 9.
Kenney has options but no momentum heading into Red Deer. A snap election could be called, or worse, a snap leadership election. Kenney has already said that he is all that stands in the way of “extremists” who want to take over the party, but he hasn’t been successful at framing this as the ballot question for the leadership review. Perhaps Kenney will take a mulligan on saving his job with a surprise leadership race. Sigh.
Alberta’s political future is obscured, yet again, by egos and a conservative party that can’t quite find reasons to unite. The people of Alberta deserve certainty and stability after April 9, but the forecast is calling for stormy clouds and poor visibility.
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