As United Conservative Party members prepare to cast ballots on the fate of Alberta Premier Jason Kenney, 19 former conservative legislature members say they support him.
The 19, in an open letter issued Wednesday, also warn that changing leaders now would mean electoral disaster.
“We have been down this road before and we don’t want to go down it again,” they say in the letter.
They say internal division and turmoil opened the door for the Opposition NDP to win power in 2015 – something they fear will be repeated in 2023.
“It is largely for this reason that we will be supporting Premier Kenney in the leadership review,” they wrote.
Mr. Kenney retweeted the three-page letter on social media, saying, “[I am] honoured to have the support of these 19 former PC and Wildrose MLAs in our campaign to keep Alberta united!”
The 19 acknowledge, as has Mr. Kenney, that he made mistakes addressing the COVID-19 pandemic but has done well managing the economy.
More importantly, they say, it’s too late to pick a new leader because the process would push the party too close to the election and hand the NDP a priceless gift of organizational advantage.
Starting Saturday, UCP members provincewide are to begin receiving ballots on whether to endorse Mr. Kenney’s leadership. The ballots are to be mailed back and results announced May 18. Mr. Kenney needs majority support or a leadership race must be called.
Many UCP constituency presidents had long pushed for a much earlier leadership review and managed late last year to have the party executive agree to move it up from the fall of 2022.
Opponents accuse the UCP board of bending to the Kenney camp two weeks ago, when the board changed the vote from an in-person ballot to a mail-in one. They suspect Mr. Kenney didn’t have the numbers to win the in-person contest.
Mr. Kenney has been facing lagging popularity numbers and confrontations with party factions and caucus members unhappy with his leadership, his past COVID-19 policies, and for what they call an imperious top-down management style that ignores the grassroots.
Political scientist Duane Bratt said the letter can’t hurt Mr. Kenney’s chances, but it lacks big names from provincial and federal conservative politics.
“Maybe UCP supporters know who they are. Maybe people in their former ridings know who they are. I mean [signatory] Alana DeLong doesn’t even live in Alberta any more,” said Prof. Bratt, with Mount Royal University in Calgary.
He said perhaps there are more names to come.
The 19 represent a cross-section of the tangled connections and shifting alliances in Alberta’s centre-right movement over the past decade.
There are former cabinet ministers Shirley McClellan, Iris Evans and Pat Nelson, and lesser-known backbenchers from the Progressive Conservative party going back to the 1990s.
Bruce Rowe and Gary Bikman were members of the Wildrose Party, which splintered off from the PCs a decade ago, accusing the governing Tories of abandoning fiscal rectitude and grassroots democracy.
In 2014, Mr. Rowe and Mr. Bikman joined seven other Wildrose members – including then-leader Danielle Smith – in a massive defection to the PC ranks, gutting and nearly collapsing the Wildrose before it was salvaged under the leadership of former Conservative MP Brian Jean a few months later.
The PCs, under Mr. Kenney, merged with Mr. Jean’s Wildrose in 2017 to form the UCP. Mr. Kenney defeated Mr. Jean in a UCP leadership race soiled by accusations of collusion and underhanded dealings.
Mr. Jean quit politics in 2018 but has returned, recently winning a by-election under the UCP banner.
Mr. Jean, fighting to oust Mr. Kenney as party leader, is to be sworn in Thursday as a member of the legislature.
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