Outspoken Alberta MLA Derek Fildebrandt won't run for the leadership of the province's newly formed United Conservative Party – a move that increases the likelihood that most right-of-centre supporters of the new political entity will back former Progressive Conservative leader Jason Kenney.
Mr. Fildebrandt, 31, an early supporter of political unity on Alberta's right, had mused in recent months about running in the United Conservative Party leadership race. For the past two weeks, he has been public in his disdain for Brian Jean – who was Mr. Fildebrandt's boss under the now-inoperative Wildrose Party.
But on Tuesday, Mr. Fildebrandt announced he is going to "sit this one out" to focus on policy development within the new party, as well as his young family.
"There are three candidates declared already, and possibly more to come," Mr. Fildebrandt said in an interview. "But I think there's a vacuum on the side of policy development in the party right now … what we stand for other than just beating the NDP."
The United Conservative Party is betting on a hamstrung economy and Albertans' unease with its first-ever NDP government will provide a political opening in the next provincial election, expected in 2019. Last month, the provincial Wildrose and Progressive Conservative parties announced their members had voted overwhelmingly in favour of unification, with the Yes side winning 95 per cent in each party. Most members of the two legacy party caucuses now sit together under the United Conservative Party banner.
Increasingly, the leadership contest for the new party is shaping up as a battle between Mr. Kenney – the Harper-era cabinet minister who quit federal politics last year to build a united conservative movement in Alberta – and Mr. Jean. Calgary lawyer Doug Schweitzer, seen as coming from the Progressive Conservative side of the political family, is also in the race that will culminate on Oct. 28th.
Mr. Kenney is a formidable political organizer who last week garnered endorsements from three former Wildrose MLAs, all from southern Alberta, who now sit in the United Conservative caucus.
Immediately after Mr. Fildebrandt made the announcement on Tuesday that he would not seek the leadership of the new united party, Mr. Kenney tweeted: "Thank-you for being an early leader in the unity movement, @Dfildebrandt, and a principled voice for more freedom and less government!"
Mr. Fildebrandt, a flag-bearer for the right flank of the party who defines his "liberty-focused" political philosophy as "traditional conservativism with a kick in the ass of libertarianism," said he's not yet throwing his support to any one leadership candidate.
But he has said no matter what, he will not support Mr. Jean. The former Wildrose leader has a platform of tried-and-true conservative policies such as axing the carbon tax and "getting tough" on violent criminals. But Mr. Jean is also trying to position himself as the more likeable, middle-of-the-road candidate who can win votes in Edmonton, where the governing NDP is a stronger political force.
Mr. Fildebrandt said his objections to Mr. Jean are not in regards to policy, per se, but stem from the fact he ran the Wildrose Party with a focus on the "cult of leadership" under which the caucus was "stifled." In 2016, Mr. Fildebrandt publicly broke ranks with Mr. Jean and spoke openly about a merger with the Progressive Conservatives. At that time, Mr. Jean was focused on the two parties co-operating rather than officially merging.
On Tuesday, Mr. Jean's camp had no comment on Mr. Fildebrandt's remarks.