On May 18, the United Conservative Party intends to announce whether its members want to keep Jason Kenney as its leader, but the UCP governing caucus is scheduled to gather the next day in a meeting that could have greater consequences for the party and the province.
Mr. Kenney in recent weeks has been acting increasingly confident that at least half of those who returned ballots support him, out of a desire for continuity and stability. The Premier’s opponents, including his UCP co-founder Brian Jean, argue that even if Mr. Kenney secures enough votes to technically win the review, he will not garner sufficient support to survive as leader.
Danielle Smith, who lead the Wildrose Party prior to Mr. Jean, fears the conservative movement in Alberta could splinter if Mr. Kenney does not make way for renewal.
And so while the results of the review will influence Alberta’s future, the fallout from the caucus meeting May 19 is expected to be more significant, regardless of what happens the day prior. If Mr. Kenney wins, caucus loyalty and stability will be tested, especially if he disciplines dissidents who have already pledged to fight on regardless of the review’s results. If he loses, the UCP caucus will select an interim leader – and therefore Premier – to guide the group during a subsequent leadership contest.
“It is one of the most important caucus meetings in history for the UCP’s existence,” Mr. Jean, who won a by-election as a UCP candidate in March, said in an interview. “Because if we don’t renew it, it is going to be gone.”
If Mr. Kenney wins support from 50 per cent, plus one, of UCP members who voted in the review, he has the right to stay on as party leader and Premier. But Mr. Jean, along with other dissident UCP MLAs, do not believe a thin victory would give Mr. Kenney the moral authority to stay put.
Neither Ed Stelmach nor Alison Redford could hold on to power after both receiving support from 77 per cent of Progressive Conservative members in their reviews, in 2009 and 2013, respectively. Mr. Jean points to these reviews as examples when asked what constitutes a “survivable” result for Mr. Kenney.
Mr. Kenney’s opponents also point to former Premier Ralph Klein, the Alberta PC stalwart who raked in 55-per-cent support in his leadership review in March, 2006, and subsequently resigned.
A grey-zone victory will mean more jostling within the UCP. Caucus members, ranging from those who were outwardly loyal to Mr. Kenney to those whose opposition stayed on the safe side of hostile, will have to do some electoral calculus, according to Lisa Young, a political-science professor at the University of Calgary.
If Mr. Kenney’s win is less than decisive, backing the leader means supporting someone opposed by a large swath of UCP members and chunks of the general public. The next election is slated for May, 2023. UCP MLAs in urban ridings are particularly vulnerable.
“Are any of them at all concerned about the likelihood that they are going to lose their jobs after the next election? Because even if they are loyal to the leader, he’s not doing well in the polls,” Ms. Young said. “At what point do you quietly withdraw your support?”
Mr. Kenney has indicated that even the narrowest of victories means rebel MLAs will have to fall in line or pack up. If he opts to remove some rogue MLAs, caucus cohesion could be strained. Mr. Jean, for example, said the UCP is his political home and Mr. Kenney can’t change that.
“He can’t remove me. I’m the MLA for Fort McMurray-Lac La Biche and I’m going to stay there,” Mr. Jean said.
The Premier has struck an optimistic tone leading up to the results of the leadership vote, predicting that he still has the support of the majority of his party. Members of his staff have mocked opponents, including a group of dissident MLAs within the UCP, who one staffer compared to clowns. A Twitter account linked to the Premier dismissed them as a “sad set of sour MLAs.”
Alberta’s NDP formed government in 2015, ending the PC party’s run of nearly 44 years in power. Mr. Kenney, then a long-time member of Parliament for the Conservative Party of Canada, argued that the NDP owed its majority to vote-splitting between the PCs and Wildrose.
By 2016, Mr. Kenney rolled out his multiphase plan to unite the right in Alberta. He said a failure to do so could mean a second NDP term. Mr. Kenney started the process by running for leader of the PCs, on a promise to fold the party. By 2017, he bested Mr. Jean, who was the last leader of the Wildrose, in the UCP’s first leadership contest. The UCP crushed the NDP in the 2019 election.
Mr. Kenney’s popularity inside caucus and beyond fell during the coronavirus pandemic, and in 2021, he threatened his colleagues with a snap election if they continued to rebel against him. He agreed last September to an accelerated timeline for a leadership review in exchange for caucus calm.
Mr. Kenney’s determination to remain leader when his popularity plummeted and while facing sustained opposition from scores of UCP MLAs indicates to Ms. Young that should he win a precarious victory next week, he will try to ride it out.
“All of this really speaks to the erosion of norms in politics,” she said, contrasting former U.S. President Richard Nixon’s fall with former President Donald Trump’s resistance to illustrate how conventions have shifted.
“Both were terrible. Both were impeached. But Nixon was actually convinced to step aside, whereas Trump stuck around,” she said.
Mr. Kenney’s cabinet members have stood by his side, appearing with him at a string of announcements in the midst of the review voting period. No minister has publicly stumped against the leader. However, some senior caucus members and cabinet ministers have been plotting strategy in the event that he loses.
Should UCP members clearly reject Mr. Kenney, caucus must choose an interim leader, who will double as Premier. The interim leader is prohibited from entering the subsequent leadership race. This means prospective candidates for leader and interim leader are jockeying for support among colleagues and quietly considering campaign plans. They have refrained from making brash moves before the votes are counted, however, in case Mr. Kenney remains in the top spot.
There are between six and 12 UCP MLAs – including cabinet ministers – manoeuvring for position as the leadership review draws to a close, according to Mr. Jean, Ms. Smith and other political players in Alberta.
Ms. Smith, the former Wildrose leader who in 2014 crossed the floor with eight colleagues to join the PCs under the late Jim Prentice, intends to run for UCP leader if Mr. Kenney is removed. (Ms. Smith also said she will run for the nomination in Livingstone-Macleod even if Mr. Kenney remains at the helm).
She says she is worried right-wing upstarts like the Wildrose Independence Party, the Buffalo Party of Alberta, and rumours of even more conservative offshoots, could gain ground if the UCP does not find new leadership.
“That is not a recipe for a conservative majority government,” she said.
UCP leadership review ballots were due May 11. Party officials, under the watch of accounting giant Deloitte, are now verifying that only eligible party members submitted voting packages. Once verified and untethered from identifying information, the sealed ballots will be opened and tallied on May 18. The UCP said it will announce results on a livestream that day, but does not have a precise time.
Elections Alberta, in an e-mail obtained by The Globe and Mail to a potential witness, said it is investigating whether some UCP memberships were improperly purchased in bulk; Mr. Jean’s team alleges some memberships may have been wrongfully procured, to Mr. Kenney’s advantage. Elections Alberta said it is unable to comment on any potential allegations or investigations.
Mr. Kenney, in a news conference earlier this week, said the party has the paperwork to back up the legitimacy of his membership sales, and dismissed such allegations as “more silliness” and “distractions.”
We have a weekly Western Canada newsletter written by our B.C. and Alberta bureau chiefs, providing a comprehensive package of the news you need to know about the region and its place in the issues facing Canada. Sign up today.