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Alberta Premier Jason Kenney speaks after the results of the United Conservative Party leadership review in Calgary on May 18.Dave Chidley/The Canadian Press

Jason Kenney will continue to lead Alberta’s United Conservative Party and remain Premier until members select a replacement, despite his surprising announcement on Wednesday night that he would step down.

The development followed a six-hour caucus meeting in downtown Calgary Thursday, where many UCP MLAs started the day expecting to select an interim leader to replace Mr. Kenney.

He shocked critics and supporters when he said Wednesday that he intended to resign after receiving 51.4-per-cent support in a party leadership review. While that secured a technical win, Mr. Kenney said it was not enough to maintain power.

UCP caucus chair Nathan Neudorf said in a statement that the party’s MLAs had a “vigorous” debate and concluded they were better off with Mr. Kenney at the helm.

“We agreed that we must remain united, focused on the best interests of Albertans, and committed to doing the job Albertans elected us to do,” he said.

“In that spirit, we have affirmed Premier Jason Kenney’s continued leadership of our caucus and government until such time as a new leader is chosen, the timing of which will be determined by the United Conservative Party.”

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney to resign after winning slim majority in UCP leadership review

UCP spokesman Dave Prisco, in a statement, confirmed a leadership election will take place. The party, he said, will share more details when they are available.

When Mr. Kenney announced his resignation plans Wednesday evening, he did not provide an effective date. On Thursday, he released the letter he sent to the UCP, informing the party of his plans. He advised the party of his “intention to resign as leader … upon the election of a new leader.”

Because Mr. Kenney received more than 50-per-cent support in the review, the results did not automatically trigger a leadership contest.

The UCP is deeply divided, both in caucus and among its membership, and some United Conservatives believe choosing a new leader will give it a better chance of narrowing internal divisions.

A number of cabinet and caucus members were considering running for interim leader ahead of Thursday’s meeting. Two conservatives have also declared their plans to run for leader and a third – a cabinet minister – confirmed that she is considering putting her name forward.

“The healing process can’t start until Jason Kenney leaves. He knows that. We know that. And we need to start the renewal process of the UCP,” Brian Jean, who lost the UCP’s first leadership race to Mr. Kenney, said before Thursday’s meeting.

Mr. Jean co-founded the UCP with Mr. Kenney five years ago. He joined the UCP caucus after winning a by-election in March on a campaign to unseat his old rival. He intends to compete for the leadership.

“It would be parliamentary tradition for [Mr. Kenney] to step down immediately,” Mr. Jean said.

Rajan Sawhney, the Minister of Transportation, supported Mr. Kenney in the leadership review. However, after he announced plans to step down, she confirmed she is among those weighing whether to contest for the top job.

“I am seriously considering running for leadership,” she said in an interview Wednesday evening. “Albertans …are looking for somebody who is going to really, really work on what our postpandemic recovery is going to look like in the social-services sector, in the economy, in health.”

Danielle Smith, who led the now-defunct Wildrose Party prior to Mr. Jean, said she will also be among the contenders.

Ms. Smith, who is not a UCP MLA, said it would be reasonable for the party to allow Mr. Kenney to extend his leadership, despite his apparent resignation. Mr. Kenney, she said, helped facilitate an apology from the Vatican over residential schools for Indigenous children. As a result, she would be comfortable with Mr. Kenney, a Catholic, remaining as leader for a bit longer.

“The Pope is visiting in July and if [Mr. Kenney] wants to stay and be Premier and receive the honour that he deserves for helping to make the Vatican realize they need to take that important step, I wouldn’t object to that,” she told media Thursday.

Richard Gotfried, the MLA for Calgary-Fish Creek, is among Mr. Kenney’s internal critics. He insisted caucus should select an interim leader Thursday to capitalize on the momentum of the leadership review and move the party forward.

“I’ll stay here until 3 o’clock in the morning,” he told reporters. “I’m not leaving that room until we get this done.”

He added: “We have an opportunity here for a reset button and we have to take that. I believe we can rebuild this party and rebuild the brand.”

Mr. Kenney in 2016 proposed merging Alberta’s Progressive Conservatives with the Wildrose Party, itself a splinter of the PCs. He left federal politics to pursue this vision and the united right-wing party unseated Alberta’s New Democratic Party in the 2019 election, capturing 55 per cent of the vote under his leadership.

The coronavirus pandemic cleaved the party and its caucus, with those on the right insisting that Mr. Kenney’s public-health restrictions were overly aggressive, and those in the centre wishing the leader had take further action. Mr. Kenney late last year fended off a caucus revolt by agreeing to an early leadership review.

Mr. Kenney previously said he would remain at the helm with as little as a simple majority. His resignation plans, therefore, surprised conservatives in Alberta and across the country.

“We were all shocked by what happened. I think many of us expected that it would be close. I don’t think we were anticipating that it was as close as it was,” said Calgary-area member of Parliament Stephanie Kusie. “And I don’t think anyone was anticipating that he would resign last night after the results. So I do think that we are all still in a state of shock.”

With reports from Marieke Walsh and Ian Bailey in Ottawa

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