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Alberta Premier Jason Kenney receives a round of standing applause as he speaks at the United Conservative Party's annual meeting in Calgary on Nov. 20.Larry MacDougal/The Canadian Press

There was not much in the way of loud, visible dissent during the annual general meeting of Alberta’s governing party – a relative win for its leader, Jason Kenney, and his supporters.

But the United Conservative Party gathering this weekend wasn’t a definitive turnaround for Mr. Kenney, who entered Alberta politics five years ago as an unmitigated conservative star, and who is now the least popular premier in the country.

Despite the lack of open defiance, divisions in the UCP, and potential challenges to Mr. Kenney’s leadership, were still a key feature of the convention. In conversations on the sidelines, some members and MLAs maintained the Premier lacks introspection on issues of trust, and they criticized his leadership style, which they described as top-down. At least two potential leadership challengers roamed the convention halls at the in-person gathering at a casino hotel on Calgary’s western city limits.

Jason Kenney deals with rock-bottom support at UCP meeting

‘We have made mistakes’: Alberta Premier Jason Kenney addresses UCP tensions in AGM keynote

Former Wildrose party leader Brian Jean, a consummate political rival to Mr. Kenney who lost the UCP leadership contest to him in 2017, is seeking the party’s nomination in Fort McMurray-Lac La Biche. He made no bones about his intention to some day seek the leadership of the party. “If the Premier takes this party forward into the next election, we’re going to lose. There’s going to be an overwhelming NDP majority,” he told reporters.

And Danielle Smith, another former Wildrose leader – who famously brokered a merger with Jim Prentice’s Progressive Conservatives in 2014, with disastrous political results for both parties – is also expressing an openness to re-entering politics.

Ms. Smith told The Globe she would have to run for the UCP leadership if the job was ever open, “for the sake of unity.” She was suggesting she would take on the role to mitigate the risk that conservative movements in Alberta will splinter between rural and urban constituencies, or along other lines.

Mr. Kenney faces a leadership review in April – or earlier, if a large contingent of constituency associations get their way. But he told reporters on Sunday he felt encouraged by the “positivity” at the weekend gathering of about 1,600 members.

“In the entire weekend – and I’ve spoken to hundreds of delegates – I only encountered one negative, which was I think one guy who booed me yesterday for promoting vaccines,” Mr. Kenney said.

In his keynote speech on Saturday, Mr. Kenney acknowledged that members of his party are angry at him for his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, including his implementations of health restrictions and vaccine passports. Other Albertans are angry that his government didn’t move more quickly to stave off a disastrous fourth wave of the disease.

Mr. Kenney told members that he always tried to strike a balance between freedoms and protecting the health-care system. “We have made mistakes in the process. And as Premier, I must take responsibility for that.”

In a sign of dissatisfaction, a small number party members sat quietly as he spoke. But he got standing ovations and loud applause at certain points, such as when he asked for members to think about how the UCP’s internal turmoil is affecting Albertans’ perceptions of the governing party.

“Let us address and resolve those internal differences internally, because the public wants to see parties and government focused not on internal party business but on the public’s priorities,” he said.

“If we can stick to the things that we were sent to Edmonton to do, I believe we will be favourably judged by Albertans.”

There were a large number of attendees wearing “I stand with Jason Kenney” buttons. But, leading up to the annual general meeting, some had questions about who exactly would be in attendance – and how much work deep-pocketed supporters of the Premier did to shepherd sympathetic members to the event.

Still, a special resolution that would have raised the threshold for constituency associations to trigger a leadership review failed – an emboldening move for those wanting to see Mr. Kenney put to a test sooner rather than later.

The big question going forward will be how a new party board handles the fact that one-quarter of constituency associations have now passed a special motion demanding a leadership review in the first two months of next year.

That’s earlier than the sometime-in-April vote now agreed upon by Mr. Kenney and the party. The backers of the motion say the earlier timeline is necessary to settle the matter well ahead of the 2023 election, and to rebuild party support, fundraising and organizing structures.

Party president Cynthia Moore said the board is in the process of verifying the motions from the 22 associations that are demanding an earlier leadership review. She said she hopes to make a formal response following a board meeting on Dec. 7.

Calgary-Fish Creek MLA Richard Gotfried, whose riding borders Mr. Kenney’s, said it’s important that any leadership review respect the principle of “one member, one vote,” instead of restricting participation to those physically present at a party convention.

He added that the Premier delivered a strong keynote speech, with encouraging economic news for the province. But, he said: “The elephant in the room – why is trust in the UCP so low, popularity of our Premier the lowest in the country, and our standing in the polls so dismal – just got bigger by not addressing it head on.”

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