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Good morning. It’s James Keller in Calgary.

Jason Kenney has faced a more difficult balancing act than most premiers over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Last year, he was panned by medical experts and political opponents for taking a light touch with public-health measures, resisting tough restrictions until infections were skyrocketing and hospitals were filling up. That changed in mid-December, when indoor gatherings were banned and restaurants and other businesses were ordered closed, although even then the province’s response did not resemble the lockdowns seen elsewhere in Canada.

And now, he is navigating anger from his supporters and within his own United Conservative Party caucus for not lifting those measures more quickly. Last month, two of his MLAs – Angela Pitt and Drew Barnes – joined an anti-lockdown group, and in the past week, they were among six members of the UCP caucus to openly criticize the government for delaying several significant aspects of the province’s re-opening plan due to increasing infections.

That discord comes on top of other headaches, including UCP supporters criticizing the government’s changes to the province’s coal policy (which were later reversed), as well as intense bipartisan anger over MLAs travelling abroad during the Christmas holidays.

Mr. Kenney, who was a federal cabinet minister in Stephen Harper’s Conservative government, returned to Alberta to unite the right by merging the former Wildrose and Progressive Conservative parties. And, as Carrie Tait reports this weekend, the Premier now faces internal strife that reveals just how fragile that marriage is.

Alberta conservatives have a history of turning on their leaders, notably Alison Redford, Ed Stelmach, and Ralph Klein – who was wildly popular until he wasn’t. The situation isn’t as dire for Mr. Kenney right now, but the UCP has suffered in recent opinion polls, and cracks in the party have fuelled speculation about whether he could face a leadership review before the 2023 election.

Mr. Kenney has publicly said he doesn’t know whether the party requires a leadership review after members voted last year to make it mandatory in certain circumstances. The party has said it is still determining “how and at what time” those rules could take effect.

David Hanson, who came from the Wildrose side of the UCP merger and represents the riding of Bonnyville-Cold Lake-St. Paul, is among those to criticize the recent decision on COVID-19 restrictions. He suggested the government moved the goalposts, because it didn’t relax restrictions even after benchmarks for hospitalization numbers were met. (The government said from the beginning that while hospitalization numbers would drive decisions, it would also look at infection rates, which have been increasing recently.)

When asked whether he still supports the Premier, Mr. Hanson said: “I stand up for the unity of the party that we put together. And absolutely, I think we need to act within the best interests of Albertans.”

Mr. Kenney, for his part, has played down the outspoken MLAs, saying he welcomes internal debate, and even having those disagreements aired publicly. He said the UCP has a “wider latitude” for MLAs to speak their mind.

He repeated that point this week, and said he’s not surprised at the “range of opinions” on how to respond to COVID-19.

“There’s been a lively debate, just as we have around the COVID cabinet committee table and around the government caucus,” he said during a news conference on Wednesday.

“At the end of the day, the government is responsible for taking the expert public health advice of the chief medical officer and her team, closely studying the data, and making difficult decisions. It’s no secret that I don’t like any of these restrictions.”


This is the weekly Western Canada newsletter written by B.C. Editor Wendy Cox and Alberta Bureau Chief James Keller. If you’re reading this on the web, or it was forwarded to you from someone else, you can sign up for it and all Globe newsletters here. This is a new project and we’ll be experimenting as we go, so let us know what you think.