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Alberta Premier Jason Kenney watches as Finance Minister Travis Toews delivers the 2022 budget in Edmonton on Feb. 24.JASON FRANSON/The Canadian Press

Jason Stephan, a United Conservative Party MLA, stood in Alberta’s legislature this week and, without naming names, implied that Premier Jason Kenney is a cheater.

Mr. Stephan did not mention the UCP or its ongoing leadership review, but in a party bursting with discord, the message was clear. Mr. Stephen is among the group of roughly 10 UCP MLAs who have openly defied Mr. Kenney, including several who have called for his resignation. So far, Mr. Kenney has been unwilling – or perhaps unable – to mete out significant consequences.

“Some say that unity requires you to follow the leader, but, Mr. Speaker, what if you’re being led over a cliff? Should you fall like a lemming? No,” Mr. Stephan said. “If you’re a member of a team and there is cheating, are you supposed to look the other way for the sake of unity? No. Winning does not justify cheating.”

Mr. Kenney has put up with an unusually large number of caucus members publicly challenging his leadership for a prolonged period of time. As a pandemic premier, he tolerated public dissent from UCP members over COVID-19, arguing that the jousting is part of being a big conservative family.

But the caucus chaos culminated in the party’s leadership review, ahead of Mr. Kenney’s preferred timeline. This instability will shape the UCP’s future, regardless of the vote’s outcome.

Mr. Kenney is increasingly explicit when addressing his expectations should he win the review: the freewheeling must end. “That will be the end of this internal argument,” Mr. Kenney told reporters Thursday, “because we have to get on with the job of serving Albertans.”

Mr. Kenney led the push to solder together Alberta’s Progressive Conservatives and the Wildrose Party, itself a splinter entity of the PCs, with fiery speeches about grassroots leadership, big-tent politics and threats of socialist ruin if the strategy failed. Now, he concedes his tolerance for dissent contributed to the party’s feuding.

“If I’ve made a mistake in the past three years, perhaps it’s [that] I’ve been far too tolerant of public expressions of opposition coming from within,” Mr. Kenney said Wednesday evening during a Facebook Live broadcast.

UCP members have until May 11 to return their leadership-review ballots, with the results scheduled to be revealed May 18. The party cancelled its original plan to have an in-person vote earlier this month, arguing that it could not safely manage the thousands of people who signed up for the meeting.

Even Mr. Kenney’s supporters acknowledge that shifting to mail-in ballots plays in his favour, which is part of the reason why he is facing allegations of cheating. The leader contends the party executive made the decision because the influx of would-be voters made an in-person event unfeasible.

Some local party executives have already said they would not trust the results if Mr. Kenney wins and some opponents believe the internal fractures will widen if he is declared victorious. However, Mr. Kenney has indicated he will interpret a win as a mandate to stamp out what he considers inappropriate internal dissent.

“If [members] decide to endorse unity and continuity, again, I will convey that to our colleagues as our marching orders for us to be a focused, united and disciplined,” he said on Facebook.

There are times when it is appropriate for MLAs to speak out, Mr. Kenney said, but it is unacceptable if it is “nothing but a constant effort at an internal civil war.”

The UCP caucus voted to remove two outspoken MLAs in May, 2021, without revealing the results of the vote. While sitting as Independents, Todd Loewen and Drew Barnes remain active in UCP circles. If Mr. Kenney survives the review, some dissidents may willingly join them; others may be forced to do so.

There are 61 UCP MLAs to the New Democratic Party’s 23, meaning the party can control government even if a swath of MLAs leave or are removed. Mr. Stephan, the MLA who swiped at Mr. Kenney in the legislature, has a handful of allies.

Peter Guthrie, for example, posted a video on Facebook last week explaining “the prospect of membership-list corruption” in the party’s leadership review, while recounting allegations that Mr. Kenney cheated in the inaugural 2017 leadership contest. He added that the RCMP is still investigating that race. Mr. Guthrie called for Mr. Kenney’s immediate ousting.

Richard Gotfried, another UCP MLA openly questioning Mr. Kenney’s willingness to play fair, shared Mr. Guthrie’s video, describing it as a “thoughtful and thorough overview of [Mr. Guthrie’s] perspective on allegations of voting irregularity in the past, membership integrity, the current leadership review.”

Mr. Stephan, Mr. Gotfried and Mr. Guthrie joined colleagues Angela Pitt and David Hanson on the steps of the legislature last month to protest against their own party. Mr. Loewen and Mr. Barnes also participated. Electors in and around Fort McMurray sent Brian Jean to government benches after he campaigned on a promise to take down Mr. Kenney. Shane Getson participated in a trucker protest at the legislature, demanding an end to vaccine mandates.

In addition, Leela Aheer, once the UCP’s deputy leader, is openly at odds with the Premier after the party fired a staff member who alleged sexual misconduct and heavy drinking among ministers and staff members. And these UCP dissidents are just the most obvious – others in caucus are more subtle in their opposition.

Political strategists are baffled that Mr. Kenney did not – or could not – stop these undermining campaigns sooner.

“The idea that you have a caucus with people in it who publicly express that they do not want the current leader is so insane and crazy and out of the political normal,” said Ken Boessenkool, who served former Prime Minister Stephen Harper as a senior campaign adviser, and former British Columbia Premier Christy Clark as Chief of Staff. “Politics is a team sport.”

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