Jason Kenney was surprised and annoyed, last December, to read that he was planning to ditch national politics for a bid to unite Alberta's fractured right.
The prospect wasn't even really on his radar, then; nothing much was, because he was so burnt out after the federal Conservatives' election loss. That didn't stop leadership backers of his erstwhile cabinet colleague Tony Clement from feeding the Kenney-to-Alberta story to the Toronto Star, an obvious attempt to cause trouble for the potential front-runner for Stephen Harper's old job. To his irritation, friends who talked to him around that time recall, Mr. Kenney had to get on the phone with Wildrose and Progressive Conservative friends in his home province and assure them he had not been secretly plotting to take over and merge their respective parties.
Then a funny thing happened: After Mr. Kenney awoke from his postelection hibernation, and started to consider what came next for him, the mischief-making by the Clement people began to look prescient. Publicly, he is now saying that he will decide by summer's end whether to seek the federal leadership or try to forge a "united alternative" to Alberta's governing NDP (or do neither). Privately, according to several sources close to him, he is leaning toward the provincial option, and may move quicker than he has let on.
If he indeed makes that decision, it stands to impact the dynamics of the next elections both nationally and in Alberta. It would also go to show what makes him one of this country's most intriguing politicians – an unusual combination of self-awareness and missionary zeal that bucks typical assumptions about the ambitions of people in his line of work.
A common perception, including among many Tories, is that Mr. Kenney spent most of Mr. Harper's reign successfully positioning himself as the favourite to succeed Mr. Harper as Conservative leader. He tirelessly traversed the country as the Tories' ambassador to immigrant communities, was endlessly available to caucus mates and candidates for fundraisers and built a database that would be the envy of any leadership aspirant. You could watch him at his party's national convention a few weeks ago, cheerily hosting a well-attended hospitality suite, and figure he long waited for this moment.
On the contrary, as one former senior staffer for him puts it, "Jason's been dreading this decision for the last five years or so."
He knew people would expect him to make a run. As arguably the single most important front-line builder of the modern Conservative Party other than Mr. Harper, he would surely be tempted at some level to have his turn at the helm. As a true movement conservative – someone who has been steadfastly trying to shift the country rightward since his days with the Canadian Taxpayers Federation attacking Ralph Klein for being too squishy – he might feel some responsibility to prevent the party from falling into the hands of relative centrists who make apologies for people like him.
But he does not need this, the way many politicians do. He is the rare public office holder who, while certainly confident about his intellect and political skills, does not easily rationalize to himself that he is the best person to front whatever cause he believes in. He also recognizes that being able to win the job does not necessarily make you the right person for it. And based on recent conversations with close allies who have worked for or alongside him, a few considerations seemingly lead him to believe he might not be.
One of those is his energy level for what could be a very long haul. The next Conservative leader has to be willing to endure a lengthy opposition stint, given the decent possibility of Justin Trudeau's Liberals being re-elected at least once, and ideally then serve a couple of terms in government. Mr. Kenney, who claims to have spent roughly 2,000 nights in hotel rooms during the Harper era and all but collapsed when it ended, knows he might struggle to maintain such a pace.
Another is whether he is the best possible candidate to put a fresh face on a party that looked tired by the time it lost power. Even though he is a very different person from the former prime minister – more approachable, less disciplined, more respectful of Parliament and its institutions, more ideologically dogmatic – he knows his opponents would seek to brand him as Stephen Harper 2.0. With another white, middle-aged, not wildly charismatic Albertan, it might not be that difficult to do so.
Related to this is the question of how Mr. Kenney would compete with Mr. Trudeau, on the personality side of politics. Unlike the telegenic Prime Minister with the beautiful family and pop-culture savvy, Mr. Kenney is a workaholic who does not appear to have much of a personal life outside politics, and who turns to a playlist of classical music and Gregorian chants when looking for relaxation. He's a little more relatable than that might suggest, more able than many politicians to have a relaxed conversation in a pub over beers, but that might not easily come across.
And on top of that, there may also be the matter of his social conservatism. It's debatable whether his strong views on abortion and other such issues are as toxic to voters as tends to be believed in Ottawa. But there is no question he would have to spend a lot of time answering questions about them. Although he now accepts same-sex marriage, he would also have to explain himself when opponents dredged up very strident past quotes on matters such as gay rights. Unlike Mr. Harper, Mr. Kenney – a religious Catholic – feels strongly enough about social issues that he is unlikely to want to completely set aside this aspect of his conservatism. That doesn't necessarily mean he's interested in spending half his life defending it.
It's still possible Mr. Kenney will overcome these causes for hesitation and any others besides, and make a federal run. He made a noticeable effort this past winter, after the postelection period in which he went dark, to re-establish public profile and reach out directly to potential backers, presumably to ensure they didn't line up behind someone else yet.
Some of his former staffers, along with other admirers in Ottawa, are still telling him the federal party needs him. His absence from the race potentially contributing to front-runner status for Peter MacKay – a relatively pragmatic Nova Scotian with Progressive Conservative roots, which is to say not a movement Conservative like him – might yet persuade him they're right.
But maybe he's willing to take his chances on the next federal leader, comfortable that the foundations of the party he helped build are strong enough not to crumble, whoever is at the helm. Maybe he can throw his support behind a fellow traveller – someone like Andrew Scheer, the former House of Commons Speaker attracting leadership buzz lately, another arch-conservative (socially and otherwise) but one with more everyman charm. Maybe Mr. Kenney is more needed somewhere else.
There was a telling moment at that recent Conservative convention, when he appeared on a panel meant to showcase visions for the party's future. Alone among the dozen prospective leadership candidates and up-and-coming caucus members featured on it, he opted not to talk about federal politics at all in his first turn with the microphone. Instead, he pivoted to an impassioned pitch for re-establishing his province as the country's economic engine and conservative ideas factory. "To my Alberta colleagues here," he concluded, "let's make Alberta again the free-enterprise capital of Canada by working together to defeat the socialists in 2019."
Away from the spotlight, he has been talking in more detail with confidantes about what uniting the provincial right would involve. Sources who acknowledged such conversations were circumspect about the details, but hinted at the possibility of Mr. Kenney seeking the leadership of the once-mighty (now third-place) Progressive Conservatives, then pursuing a merger with the Official Opposition Wildrose.
By most normal political calculations, this would seem a less inviting prospect than taking a straightforward shot at moving into Stornoway. Provincial opposition can be unglamorous work at the best of times. There are no guarantees, when trying to get politicians to set aside egos and genuine differences in the name of unity; it's conceivable, for instance, that Mr. Kenney could wind up marooned as the leader of the more centrist of Alberta's conservative parties, which would be an odd turn of events. And that presumes he can at least wind up at one party's helm, which is no sure thing. After the Jim Prentice experience, another federal Conservative coming home to cast himself as saviour couldn't expect all arms to be open.
The uncertain path to leading a single Alberta party of the right, in particular, was enough for even Mr. Kenney to initially be dismissive of the undertaking. But it's precisely the troubled nature of what he'd be walking into, more than anything else, that seems to be drawing him closer to it.
Mr. Kenney likes to throw himself into a cause and sees himself as a "problem-solver," as a couple of his friends put it. The federal Conservatives, despite last fall's disappointment, are actually in pretty decent shape; as Mr. Harper pointed out during his farewell speech at their convention, this is the least divided their side of the spectrum has been after losing power since John A. Macdonald's day. Their support base is reasonably firm, fundraising strong, grassroots less demoralized than might reasonably be expected. The wrong leader could undo much of that, of course, but his or her job will be as much fronting as fixing.
Alberta's right, on the other hand, needs a big fix to bridge its divide, and if that's achieved, there will be much building required. If Mr. Kenney truly believes Alberta's very identity is at risk, as he implied in Vancouver, then he surely sees urgency to move swiftly before the NDP is up for re-election in three years. And if there is anyone else who has the gravitas and single-mindedness to achieve that swiftness, he or she has yet to materialize.
It might be of added appeal to Mr. Kenney that he would have less need to introduce himself, deal with the Harper 2.0 thing, and have regional resentments or suspicion layered on top of concerns about his social conservatism (which would still be a potential challenge in much of Edmonton and Calgary). And he would certainly enjoy the chance to sleep in his own bed most nights.
That fatigue that set in only a few months ago could yet persuade him to take a pass on trying to lead any party at all. Many of his former cabinet colleagues have gone off to make more money working fewer hours; he could, too, or settle into being an éminence grise.
But whereas he was once reluctant to get into electoral politics at all, preferred loudly advocating from the outside, one gets the sense he has decided he can have the most impact from the front lines. He's getting close to figuring out which front lines those will be.