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Alberta Premier Jason Kenney said he will resign as the leader of the United Conservative Party after he failed to secure substantial support from members in an internal review.

The result, which comes just five years after Mr. Kenney co-founded the UCP, clears the way for a race to replace him as leader of the deeply fractured party.

The UCP on Wednesday evening said Mr. Kenney received support from 51.4 per cent of party members who voted in his leadership review. The Premier, in a short speech, conceded that such a slim victory was not enough to hold on to power.

“I’m sorry but, friends, I truly believe that we need to move forward united,” Mr. Kenney told a small crowd at the Spruce Meadows show-jumping venue on the southern edge of Calgary. “We need to put the past behind us. And our members – a large number of our members – have asked for an opportunity to clear the air through a leadership election.”

Mr. Kenney first pitched Albertans on a united right-wing party in 2016, arguing that the New Democratic Party could galvanize power if the province’s two conservative outfits did not join hands.

He abandoned federal politics, where he previously served as a cabinet minister under former prime minister Stephen Harper, to pursue his vision of merging the Progressive Conservatives and Wildrose Party. The UCP’s inaugural leadership race, primarily a battle between Mr. Kenney and former Wildrose leader Brian Jean, was viewed more as a coronation than a competition.

While Mr. Kenney led the UCP to power in 2019, winning 55 per cent of the popular vote in the general election, the coronavirus pandemic deepened divisions within the party and province. For two years, UCP MLAs have been publicly challenging the Premier, and some have called for his resignation. Mr. Kenney, in his campaign to keep his job, warned that should party members remove him, the NDP will waltz back into government benches.

Mr. Jean won a by-election under the UCP banner in March, campaigning on a promise to overthrow Mr. Kenney. The former Wildrose leader on Wednesday confirmed that he intends to run in the forthcoming leadership race. Mr. Jean had aligned himself with a number of Mr. Kenney’s opponents in caucus, as well as two former UCP MLAs who were kicked out after opposing Mr. Kenney.

Mr. Kenney’s opponents, including Mr. Jean, argued that the UCP would lose the coming provincial election to the NDP if Mr. Kenney stayed in power. Mr. Kenney’s critics have long argued that he broke his word to the party by ignoring the “grassroots” members.

Mr. Jean, in a statement Wednesday, said these members still want to be part of the conservative movement. “They want the UCP to be what it was meant to be, a party that can hold the support and goodwill of all types of conservatives and that can successfully fight off the bad anti-freedom and anti-prosperity ideas of [Rachel] Notley’s NDP.”

Mr. Kenney did not provide an effective date for his resignation. Whitney Issik, chief government whip and UCP MLA for Calgary-Glenmore, confirmed that the party would hold a caucus meeting Thursday morning, when they will know more about their next steps.

“The Premier has spoken,” she said. “I will tell you this: At this time, we are united in the fact that Albertans’ priorities are the most important priorities for all of us.”

While Mr. Kenney previously insisted a simple majority would be enough for him to stay on as leader, he told an invitation-only crowd that such a slim victory was not enough to hold on to power.

Mr. Kenney’s loss is the culmination of two years of infighting within the governing UCP. Several UCP MLAs openly called for Mr. Kenney’s resignation, based largely on his handling of COVID-19 public-health measures.

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Brian Jean speaks to reporters at the Alberta legislature in Edmonton on March 20, 2017. The former Wildrose leader on Wednesday confirmed that he intends to run in the forthcoming leadership race.CODIE MCLACHLAN/The Canadian Press

Mr. Jean joined the government caucus in March, but never integrated with Mr. Kenney’s government and openly challenged the Premier in the legislature. Danielle Smith, Mr. Jean’s predecessor as Wildrose leader, has also said she would run. She is not a member of caucus but recently announced her intention to seek the nomination in a southwestern Alberta riding.

Mr. Kenney’s popularity crashed during the pandemic as scores of UCP MLAs publicly criticized his public-health restrictions and governing style. Dissidents on the party’s right wing accused him of infringing on freedoms, while centrists, largely from urban areas, argued that he did not do enough to protect Albertans and the health care system.

During the campaign to keep his job as UCP Leader, Mr. Kenney boasted that he had never lost an election. His challengers believed that UCP members in rural ridings were especially upset with COVID-19 restrictions and would lead to his downfall. A handful of cabinet ministers and some caucus members were preparing leadership plans in the event Mr. Kenney lost his job Wednesday.

Mr. Kenney cast himself as the only person who could hold the province’s conservative movement together. Mr. Kenney’s rivals, including those in caucus, argued that the NDP would win if he remains at the helm.

Alberta’s next general election is scheduled for May, 2023.

In 2019, Mr. Kenney inherited a province whose economy had been struggling because of low oil prices for years. The COVID-19 pandemic made the situation worse while creating turmoil within his own party.

He staved off a caucus revolt last year by agreeing to a spring leadership review rather than waiting until the fall, which would have put the party vote just months before a provincial election.

Anger toward Mr. Kenney increased when the party rejected a request from nearly two dozen constituency associations to have a leadership review before April. The party planned an in-person review for early April, in Red Deer. It cancelled that plan, near the end of March, and implemented a mail-in ballot system. Votes were due May 11.

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