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Does Jason Kenney have two years – until the next provincial election – to dig himself out of the political hole he’s in? Or will a reckoning for the Alberta Premier come much sooner? As negative polls and missteps mount, there are small but revealing cracks in United Conservative Party solidarity.

The next provincial election is scheduled for 2023. Mr. Kenney’s chief electoral rival, former NDP premier Rachel Notley, continues to hammer the government on its pandemic response and its risky outlay in Keystone XL. She’s also offering easily digested ideas for urban voters – including promises for a plan to fill empty Calgary office towers, and a push to cap the fees charged to restaurants by food delivery apps. Her party out-fundraised the governing UCP last year.

But Alberta is a province where, in recent decades, a turnover in leadership is more likely to be spurred by unhappiness within the ranks of the party than by a change of heart by voters at the ballot box.

In 2011, Ed Stelmach announced he would leave the premier’s job amid growing discontent within conservative ranks. Alison Redford resigned in early 2014 – two years after winning a surprising electoral victory against the heavily favoured Wildrose but days after being put on leadership probation by her party’s board of directors. Even Ralph Klein, so popular through most of his tenure that he was often referred to “King Ralph,” overstayed his welcome and was pushed out by Progressive Conservative party members at an infamous 2006 leadership review.

Party discord that eventually leads to premiers exiting the legislature isn’t loud and boisterous at its beginnings – it comes out in dribs and drabs, through grumbling at the constituency association level, or MLA critiques of Edmonton handed out in interviews with small, community newspapers. That’s why it’s worth keeping a tally of hits, big and small, Mr. Kenney takes from his fellow conservatives.

This week the Premier’s old political rival Brian Jean, beaten in the 2017 party leadership race, penned a critical op-ed in the Sun. He took Mr. Kenney to task for hiring outsiders unfamiliar with the province’s political scene, suggested he needed to improve his relationship with his caucus, and even told him to get more sleep. “Fire yourself as intergovernmental affairs minister,” Mr. Jean wrote.

Also this week, MLA R.J. Sigurdson, who represents Highwood, told his local newspaper he would bring his and his constituents’ concerns about the government’s new direction on coal to Edmonton. His remarks were relatively tame, but still salient, as the UCP MLA joined municipal leaders, the NDP, ranchers and country music stars, many of whom question whether it’s right for the government to make it easier for coal companies to pursue mine developments in sensitive areas of the eastern slopes of the Rockies.

And finally, MLA Drew Barnes drew attention this week for advocating for a referendum on separation. Mr. Kenney has repeatedly said Alberta separation is a no go. Mr. Barnes, who represents Cypress-Medicine Hat, appears fearless in voicing his contrary views – saying he’s confident he represents thousands of Albertans grappling with long-term unemployment or economic uncertainty, who believe taking a harder line with Ottawa would help the situation.

But there is more at play than a disagreement on separation. In an interview, Mr. Barnes said he wants the UCP government to take more steps to balance its own budget. He also praised Mr. Sigurdson and Mr. Jean for speaking their minds, and when asked whether those challenges will affect the Premier’s leadership, replied, “that will depend on how the Premier handles it.”

While many question why the Premier allows Mr. Barnes to say what he does, the better question is who has more to lose if Mr. Barnes is quieted, or punted from caucus. Mr. Barnes, who ran for the leadership of the Wildrose in 2015 but lost to Mr. Jean, doesn’t hide that he still has greater aspirations than being a backbench MLA. It’s likely better for Mr. Kenney if Mr. Barnes remains in the fold instead of challenging him from the outside.

It’s also true the UCP is a much different entity than the old PC party that ruled the province for decades, and is often viewed as a creation of the Premier. Mr. Kenney came back to Alberta with impressive federal credentials. He was the major catalyst for the merger between the PCs and the Wildrose, before winning the leadership.

But not all UCP members share the view that the party belongs to Mr. Kenney. Those Wildrose-camp party members are increasingly grumbling about a disconnect on a long list of items, including the coal policy, and pandemic public health restrictions they view as far too onerous. There is also concern that what is viewed as the old PC sense of entitlement – from a bygone time when the province was rolling in cash – is creeping into the government culture. The international trips taken over the holidays by a cabinet minister, MLAs and the Premier’s chief-of-staff, while most of the province stayed at home, is the key example. Trust is also an issue: They don’t believe the Premier didn’t know his people were going abroad.

Mr. Kenney, when he was running to lead the merged conservative parties, promised to listen to the grassroots – which is another term for party stalwarts, many of them formerly of the Wildrose party, many of them rural or from smaller centres, and all of whom make the party tick.

But what isn’t understood by many UCP members is whether there’s now a mechanism to express themselves. Last fall, the United Conservative Party passed a leadership review resolution declaring that one be held under certain conditions, including at the request of more than one-quarter of constituency associations, and at least once in one year between elections.

It’s unclear whether that means a leadership review will happen this year (it won’t be in 2022, the year before a provincial election). On Friday, party president Ryan Becker said the board is still determining “how and at what time” these leadership review rules take effect.

To be clear, Mr. Kenney isn’t going to lose his job tomorrow. There is no clear-cut successor. Anyone who wants the job has to ask themselves how they would do in managing the wretched provincial budget numbers and an uneasy electorate – more divided about how to manage the pandemic than most other provinces – and the many internal conservative divisions.

“I’m not surprised people would be critical of government that has to take really hard decisions, at an unprecedented time of crisis,” Mr. Kenney told reporters, when asked about Mr. Jean’s appraisal of his leadership.

Mr. Kenney has a bit of luck with him at this moment, in that Alberta COVID-19 hospitalizations are trending down, and Ottawa’s problematic vaccine rollout allows his government a breather from issues management. His government’s fortunes and policies could change, for the better. But it’s also possible these embattled days of early 2021 might not be the political low point for the Alberta Premier.

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