The legislative offices of the Wildrose Party were empty on Tuesday as Alberta's Official Opposition caucus stayed out of the public eye. With only a few MLAs pledging to remain, the party confirmed that most of its 14 elected members debated and voted on a mass defection to the ruling Progressive Conservatives.
It wasn't immediately clear how many Wildrose MLAs voted to defect, but the move left the unelected party executive baffled and angry as it promised that a rump opposition would fight on. The defection by the Opposition Leader and much of her caucus, unprecedented in modern Canadian political history, would end the most credible challenge to the Tories' 43-year reign.
The mass floor-crossing would give Premier Jim Prentice control of 70 or more of the legislature's 87 seats and mark the end of a fast decline in Wildrose fortunes that has stunned observers. As recently as this summer, Opposition Leader Danielle Smith was in position to win the premier's office at the next general election.
On Wednesday morning, the PC caucus will vote on whether to give Ms. Smith and some of her colleagues seats on the government's side of the legislature. To the Liberal and New Democratic opposition, the welcoming of the right-wing Wildrose into the Tory caucus would vindicate their claim that Mr. Prentice has abandoned his party's progressive wing.
Neither Ms. Smith nor Wildrose House Leader Rob Anderson commented publicly Tuesday. However, sources close to the party say that both leaders were behind the defection.
Three weeks ago, MLAs Kerry Towle and Ian Donovan left Wildrose for the Tories, saying they had grown disillusioned with the Opposition after a series of missteps.
In the wake of Mr. Prentice's arrival to the premiership in mid-September, the rural-based Wildrose lost four by-elections on Oct. 27. Those losses were followed by a move at the party's convention in November where members voted down a policy that supported equal rights for all minority groups, including the province's LGBT community.
With the Official Opposition shedding MLAs and support in opinion polls, Mr. Prentice opened the door to more defections. On Monday, he reiterated his support for floor-crossers saying that he welcomes "all conservatives" as part of his government.
The plans for a mass defection were known as recently as last week, only days after Ms. Smith said she had stopped the Opposition's bleeding.
"Danielle's tenure was coming to end and the party was in turmoil," said Joe Anglin, who left the Wildrose on Nov. 2 to sit as an Independent. "There was a movement to throw Danielle out and this was her response to that. This is about survivability and panic."
In an e-mail sent to members of the party's executive, president David Yager called Ms. Smith's move a "backroom deal" and "capitulation." While the defections have been referred to as a merger or reunification of the province's right, party officials say that no one outside of the caucus was consulted before Tuesday's vote.
A former Wildrose president, Jeff Callaway, was shaken by the events and has vowed that the party will survive the departure of his protégée, Ms. Smith. Mr. Callaway joined the party on its first day and still serves as its head of fundraising.
"It's a mutiny that involves the Leader; I have no idea what I'd call that," Mr. Callaway said. "I left Danielle Smith a voice mail last night and she isn't returning any of my calls. I was the party president when we had the leadership race to bring her into the party. I helped recruit her into the party. I've been her staunchest supporter in the party. This was surprising."
Drew Barnes, MLA for Cypress-Medicine Hat, still has a retreat on his calendar booked for Feb. 5 with the rest of the Wildrose caucus to discuss the defections by Ms. Towle and Mr. Donovan. Mr. Barnes says he has no interest in joining a government that has "really underachieved."
Stating that the party's grassroots in southern Alberta are livid, Mr. Barnes says he has received the support of hundreds of his constituents. He says at least one other MLA has confirmed he will remain in the Wildrose fold, while four more MLAs were debating whether to remain.