In October, 2017, the last time Brian Jean and Jason Kenney went head-to-head, Mr. Jean knew the odds were against him.
I remember Mr. Jean and his wife Kim walking slowly into the Calgary conference centre, where the results of the United Conservative Party leadership race would be announced hours later. His wasn’t the entrance of a person heading to a contest he thought he might possibly win. It was the weary gait of someone who had accepted their fate. In the end, Mr. Kenney won nearly twice as many votes to lead Alberta’s newly united conservatives.
Apparently, in the four years since that evening, Mr. Jean has been building the fortitude to do what he’s doing now – launching an overt political battle against his old rival, the now pandemic-battered Premier Kenney.
“Mr. Kenney has, over the last period of time, made a consistent amount of very terrible decisions that have affected a lot of Albertans immensely,” Mr. Jean said in an interview.
Mr. Jean himself resigned from his job as MLA for Fort McMurray-Conklin months after the leadership race, in early 2018. But he never fully disappeared from the world of Alberta politics. He’s been at key conferences, he has been writing columns and posting criticisms of Mr. Kenney to his website.
There was speculation before the 2019 provincial election that Mr. Jean wanted to re-enter provincial politics and challenge Mr. Kenney under another party’s banner. The talk was substantive enough that former prime minister Stephen Harper weighed in, asking conservatives not to let “personal ambition and fighting old battles” split the vote.
But in early 2022, Mr. Jean will jump back in. Last weekend was step one, with Mr. Jean winning the nomination to be the UCP candidate in a by-election in the provincial riding of Fort McMurray-Lac la Biche.
A date for the by-election, which must be called by Feb. 15, hasn’t been set yet. But the date Mr. Jean is truly working toward is April 9, when Mr. Kenney will face a party leadership review. If Mr. Kenney doesn’t receive a solid mandate from party members, it will trigger an actual leadership race. There could be other contenders for leadership. But in the leadup to that April vote, Mr. Jean has already launched what feels like an early, one-man leadership campaign.
Mr. Jean’s team added a fundraising link to his website this week. He won’t say how much has come in, but said “he’s surprised and happy.” Party supporters who had let their memberships lapse are now rejoining, he said. He’s touring the province. His mind is focused on campaigning up to the leadership review, taking a few days off, and then working to rebuild the party before an election in 2023, when the UCP will take on the now far more popular NDP.
“The members have given me a mandate to push for renewal. They want a total renewal of the UCP,” he said.
Is this a real thing? Until now, internal party frustration with Mr. Kenney has failed to lead to any major turning point, despite many times in 2021 when it seemed possible. The most recent example, at the UCP AGM in November, was a mixed bag of internal party votes that went both for and against Mr. Kenney. But there was not much in the way of visible dissent, and the Premier came out of the weekend looking buoyed and confident.
But now there is an actual thing – the leadership review – for the Premier’s opponents to organize around. Mr. Jean – who was leader of the Wildrose party in the 2015 election that saw the NDP win power after more than four decades of Progressive Conservative rule – has an advantage of being able to campaign full-time while Mr. Kenney still has to do the difficult work of governing through an Omicron wave of the pandemic.
Even in the wild world of Alberta politics, this is a newly strange set of events. The party has recognized Mr. Jean as the UCP candidate in Fort McMurray-Lac la Biche, and party president Cynthia Moore has called to congratulate him.
Mr. Kenney has said little, other to question Mr. Jean’s “reliability,” noting Mr. Jean talked to other parties about running for them, and that he didn’t complete his most recent terms as either an MP or MLA.
There are also questions about how Mr. Jean would govern a province that doesn’t always abide by old stereotypes about how conservative it is.
And it’s not completely clear what Mr. Jean would do differently on difficult files, such as pandemic-era health restrictions, which have split the UCP. For instance, despite the fact that most Albertans are in favour of a vaccine passport system, and other provinces also put them in place, many party members still don’t like such measures.
Mr. Jean said he wishes they didn’t exist, and that the province probably implemented a vaccine passport only because the current government let the COVID-19 situation “get out of control.”
In contrast to Mr. Kenney, who’s guarded about his personal life, Mr. Jean is disarmingly open about his family’s tragedies in recent years, including the death of his 24-year-old son from lymphoma in 2015. In 2018, when he resigned from provincial politics, Mr. Jean said it was important to him to “draw closer” to his family and finally rebuild his home, which was razed in a massive wildfire that hit Fort McMurray in 2016. (Even before he could move into his new home, it was destroyed by historic flooding in April, 2020).
Other politicians have left mid-term, Mr. Jean noted – including Mr. Kenney, who quit his federal seat in 2016 to enter provincial politics. Mr. Jean added that it was other parties that approached him, rather than the other way around.
Mr. Jean also talked about the personal distance between the two UCP politicians. In the months-long span when Mr. Kenney was the newly minted UCP leader, but before Mr. Jean resigned as MLA, Mr. Jean said his then-boss barely spoke a word to him.
“I sort of took that as a hint that maybe, just maybe – combined with my family issues – that might be a good idea for me to get out of the way of Jason Kenney.”
There’s no more getting out of the way these days. Mr. Jean is now adamant that Mr. Kenney’s resignation would be good for the party and the province.
“Do I think that he will change and stop making bad decisions and start making good decisions?” Mr. Jean said, before a long pause.
“If I believed that, I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing. He’s got to go. We only have literally a year before the next election cycle starts. That should really make conservative-minded Albertans worried.”
Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.