A day after a potential showdown forced the resignation of Premier Ed Stelmach, Alberta's Progressive Conservative caucus moved swiftly to mitigate fallout by rushing the leader out the door, announcing the completion of a controversial budget and denying any rifts in the party.
But the battle is not over - Finance Minister Ted Morton, who had quietly been planning to resign over Mr. Stelmach's plan to run a massive deficit - said on Wednesday that the budget is ready without the major cuts Mr. Morton was seeking, but wouldn't say if he'd table it.
Mr. Stelmach, meanwhile, hasn't said publicly when he'll actually leave. But on Wednesday, sources said, he was rebuffed in his hopes to stay on until the spring term ends on June 2, which would have left a leadership race until fall.
His party is wary of repeating the 2006 race, which dragged on for eight months during former premier Ralph Klein's slow exit. Now it's moving to get a leadership convention as soon as June 15, sources say, and that means urging Mr. Stelmach to leave sooner.
"That's just absolute craziness [to wait until fall] No one wants that," one long-time Tory said on Wednesday. "The big fight today is the timing. There is no appetite for this. It would be the summer from hell, it would expose all the fissures and infighting."
PC party president Bill Smith acknowledged many within the party want a race shorter than in 2006.
Although many MLAs said on Tuesday that caucus was divided over the budget and Mr. Morton's planned resignation, government members on Wednesday took a rosier outlook and denied any internal rift.
"The divide in caucus is completely a figment of the press's imagination," MLA Lloyd Snelgrove said.
Focus turned to possible replacements, who would have to resign cabinet posts before declaring. Among the presumptive candidates is Mr. Morton, who Mr. Stelmach beat in 2006. But few people think he could win this time around.
Before deciding whether to run, Mr. Morton has to solve the budget impasse. On Wednesday, he refused to say if he'd table the completed budget, but that he now supports it because the rest of the caucus is in favour of it, and "caucus decision stands."
"The Premier and I are going to have a talk, but I support the budget," Mr. Morton said. He was later asked if he'd resign, either to seek the leadership or in protest, as he had planned to do on Tuesday. "Why would I resign? Go figure."
The budget is one of many hurdles for Mr. Morton, said University of Calgary professor Tom Flanagan, a former adviser to Prime Minister Stephen Harper and friend of Mr. Morton - all part of the so-called Calgary School of conservative political thinkers.
"He's got to get through the short-term, and it's just not clear how he will get through the short-term," Prof. Flanagan said.
A prickly Mr. Morton declined to say if he'd run to replace Mr. Stelmach, calling the questions inappropriate.
Many feel he has lost much of his far-right support within the PC party to the Wildrose Alliance. "I actually think he'll find it very difficult to win," Prof. Flanagan said.
"All I know is this will not be a Ted Morton coronation, that is for sure. He has far too many enemies in caucus," added Wildrose MLA Rob Anderson, a former PC member who crossed the floor.
Justice Minister Alison Redford - seen widely as a strong potential leadership candidate - said Wednesday she is debating whether she can take the time away from her family to run.
"It might be something in the future that I'll consider. Whether that is imminent or not, I just don't know at this point," said Ms. Redford, a lawyer and first-term MLA who is among those resisting deep service cuts in the budget.
Deputy premier Doug Horner also confirmed he's considering a bid.
The timetable for a race, and who would be in it, is expected to become more clear in the next week, but some MLAs are hesitant to rush it.
"I don't think it's possible to do it that quickly," MLA Doug Elniski said of the June 15 target. "If you were actually good to go and wanted people to fully participate, you probably wouldn't be doing much until October, November."
In other words, as long as or longer than the 2006 race - not what many, including the party president, want.
"Yes, shorter would be better," Mr. Smith said. "But there are so many variables between now and then."
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