It’s not often that control of a provincial political party that has been in power for more than four decades is bestowed on someone. But that’s what many believe will happen if former federal cabinet minister Jim Prentice declares his intention to seek the leadership of Alberta’s governing Progressive Conservative Party.
The crown will effectively be placed on his head the day he says he’s in.
There would still be a leadership race; Mr. Prentice’s friend Ken Hughes has already declared that he’s running. More are likely to as well. But there are others believed to be waiting to see what Mr. Prentice does: If he’s in, they’re out. (Why waste time and money). Which raises the question: If winning the leadership and automatically becoming premier of the wealthiest province in the country would be that easy, why wouldn’t Mr. Prentice go for it?
Because the decision is not as simple as it may appear. There are several good reasons that the lawyer and former federal environment minister (among other cabinet posts) might turn his back on this opportunity.
First, it’s been assumed that Mr. Prentice’s leadership ambitions were always at the federal level, not provincial. I’m not sure how this narrative developed, but ever since the Calgary lawyer left Ottawa in 2010 to accept a senior executive position at CIBC, it’s been almost a given that he would one day run for the leadership of the Conservative Party after Stephen Harper stepped down.
At 57, if Mr. Prentice were to run for the Alberta Tories, and win, then he’d pretty much be ruling out a future federal leadership bid. What no one knows is how strong his dreams to one day become prime minister are – if they are real at all.
Then there are more practical political concerns that could easily turn him off running for the Alberta PCs.
While he would certainly be the clear front-runner if he declared, he’d still have to hit the campaign trail to sign up members. That means a couple of months or more of travelling around in a Winnebago, making stops at every little Do Drop Inn that his campaign team can find. It’s not a fun process unless you have a special affinity for small talk. It’s a difficult and often tedious grind that unfortunately can’t be taken lightly. Yes, the path to victory would be pretty clear for Mr. Prentice but not completely unencumbered.
Is he prepared to give up the executive lifestyle and seven-figure salary he’s making at CIBC to take on that kind of work?
Then, of course, there is the small matter of the political mess that he’d be inheriting as leader of the provincial Tories.
He would certainly give the party a boost in its polling numbers – but as low as they are that isn’t saying a whole lot. Nonetheless, trying to reverse the party’s miserable fortunes would be a long, hard slog. Alison Redford left the provincial Tories in a massive hole, financial and otherwise. Or as one long-time Tory described the situation: “This thing is a smoking wreck.”
It’s been widely published that the PCs are at least $2-million in debt – although some suggest the number is even higher. After assuming the leadership, one of Mr. Prentice’s first big jobs would be raising money to erase that deficit and begin building a war chest for the next provincial election. And you know what that means?
It means spending the next two years plus giving speeches at party fundraisers from Grande Prairie to Lethbridge and all points in between and beyond. You have to love the job to put in that kind of work. Does Mr. Prentice have that kind of fire burning in his belly?
And even after all that, there is no guarantee of success. He would be taking over a party that will have been in power 45 years by the time the next election rolls around and dragging behind it more baggage than a Cirque de Soleil production. He’d be facing a fierce and ready Wildrose party, with a charismatic, and now more experienced, leader, Danielle Smith, at the helm. It just may be that no matter what he does, the electorate will insist it’s time for a change.
It’s a lot for Mr. Prentice to consider. The job is his if he wants it. But is it one that any sane person in his position would desire?
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“An earlier online version of this story and the original newspaper version of this story incorrectly stated that the federal party in power was the Progressive Conservatives instead of the Conservative Party. . . . This online version has been corrected.”