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Alberta Premier Jason Kenney makes his way to the chamber in Edmonton on March 20, 2020.JASON FRANSON/The Canadian Press

Premier Jason Kenney is urging his United Conservative Party to focus on the many challenges facing Alberta instead of “internal politics“ after the UCP pushed the issue of a leadership review into next year and potentially just months before the next provincial election.

The UCP board announced on Friday that the party would hold a leadership review at next year’s annual general meeting. The decision follows weeks of increasing tension within Mr. Kenney’s caucus, with several UCP MLAs speaking against government policies and poll numbers that have suggested falling support for the Premier and his party.

UCP members passed a resolution last year calling for a leadership review to be held every three years in non-election years but the party had yet to say how it would put that into practice. The next provincial election is scheduled for the spring of 2023.

Party president Ryan Becker wrote to constituency association presidents on Friday to announce that the board voted to hold a leadership review at the 2022 annual general meeting. Mr. Becker said the party made the decision after receiving legal advice and consulting with constituency associations.

Mr. Kenney said on Monday that holding regular leadership reviews make sense but that now is not the time.

“I don’t think it would make much sense for us as a party to be focused on internal politics in the middle of multiple crises that we as a government have to manage,” he said during an unrelated news conference.

“We’re going to stay focused on the huge responsibility we have and not be distracted.”

Mr. Kenney declined to say what threshold he would need to stay on, though other party leaders have set that well above a simple majority.

Conservatives in Alberta have a recent history of pushing out their leaders, starting with Ralph Klein, who was wildly popular in the 1990s but resigned after the Progressive Conservatives held a leadership review in 2006. Mr. Klein received 55-per-cent support.

Over the next decade, the party, which later merged with the Wildrose Party to become the UCP, had four more leaders who served as premier. They included Ed Stelmach and Alison Redford, who both resigned in the face of internal party conflict.

While the UCP has not scheduled its annual general meeting for 2022, previous AGMs have been held in the fall, which could put such a vote less than six months before the next provincial election.

That could help Mr. Kenney attempt to move past recent controversies related to his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic and public-health measures; the decision to change coal-mining rules along the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains, which was later put on hold; the sunny vacations that one cabinet minister and several MLAs took over the Christmas break despite public-health advice against international travel; and the province’s current economic malaise, which predated the pandemic and was showing little sign of recovery during Mr. Kenney’s first year in office.

Mr. Kenney and his party have also performed poorly in several recent opinion polls, which have put the UCP tied with, or even substantially below, the Opposition New Democrats.

Lori Williams, a political science professor at Mount Royal University in Calgary, also said holding a leadership review so close to an election will make it all but certain that party members will vote to keep the leader they have.

“The strategy is to try to put as much distance between the troubles of today and any sort of reflection on his leadership.”

Prof. Williams noted that Mr. Kenney’s support has fallen even as most premiers across the country and the Prime Minister have enjoyed favourable poll numbers during the pandemic.

She said the timing of the leadership review removes a significant threat to Mr. Kenney’s leadership but she noted that other premiers have been forced out even without such a review.

“It just kicks it into a territory that makes it very difficult to accomplish,” she said.

“As we have seen many times before in Alberta, there will still be the possibility of putting pressure on the government and on the Premier.”

Adam Waterman, president of the Vermilion-Lloydminster-Wainwright UCP constituency association, said he doesn’t believe there’s a groundswell of support within the party to force a leadership review or even change leaders.

He said he doesn’t read too much into the decision to hold the review next year instead of having it sooner. He said people in his riding are more concerned with moving past COVID-19.

“From our perspective, if he ran again here, he’d win again. And that’s not for want of a serious challenger. It’s satisfaction with what he’s doing,” Mr. Waterman said in an interview on Monday.

“It really just seems to be everybody trying to find a little bit of hoping. It’s a bit of fire and it’s the smallest amount of smoke.”

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