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Alberta Premier Jason Kenney arrives at the 2021 budget presentation in Edmonton on Feb. 25, 2021.

JASON FRANSON/The Canadian Press

Say what you will about Alberta Premier Jason Kenney’s handling of the COVID-19 crisis, but at least his thinking on the subject isn’t quite as misinformed as it once was.

It was almost a year ago that he rose in the legislature to dismiss the disease as an influenza that mostly affected octogenarians and the immunocompromised. He said it would be irresponsible to impair the social and economic well-being of the province with long lockdowns that restricted people’s essential freedoms.

Today, however, he is facing a caucus revolt because of edicts he has imposed to prevent the spread of an illness he now acknowledges is far more deadly than any flu – and, in fact, is threatening to overwhelm the province’s hospital system.

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Recently, 17 members of Mr. Kenney’s United Conservative Party caucus, mostly rural MLAs, signed a letter denouncing Alberta’s latest round of constraints, calling them an infringement on their “livelihoods and freedoms.” This dissent had been bubbling beneath the surface for some time.

Mr. Kenney has attempted to downplay it, saying this is what happens in a democracy and that some internal opposition to government measures isn’t a bad thing. Unless, of course, you’re a premier burdened with dreadful polling numbers and Albertans angry with him for being either too lax or too strict when it comes to dealing with the pandemic. (Seventy-five per cent of those recently polled by Angus Reid believe he’s doing a bad job handling the crisis.)

No other premier in Canada has such a polarized public to deal with when it comes to the pandemic. This has led to hesitancy and false starts on the government’s part in fighting the disease now ripping through the province.

There is a theory that the caucus revolt is being managed – that it’s a piece of performative theatre approved by the Premier as a way of satiating a restriction-angry rural electorate. I think that would be too clever by half. No, this is a genuine uprising about which Mr. Kenney should be worried.

These MLAs are challenging a leader who has been chastened over the past year. The aura of invincibility that once enveloped Mr. Kenney after his impressive takeover of the Progressive Conservative Party and later merger with the Wildrose Party to form the UCP evaporated long ago. The Premier has not produced a whole lot of remedies for all that ails his province economically. His well-worn schtick of criticizing Prime Minister Justin Trudeau for everything now comes across as tired and misplaced.

Mr. Kenney should be concerned about another splintering of the centre-right in Alberta. The last major cleavage led to the Wildrose Party in the 2000s, which, it can be argued, ultimately led to the New Democratic Party’s rise to power in 2015. The Premier maintains, correctly, that any fracturing of the centre-right creates a pathway for the NDP to form government – especially with a leader as popular as Rachel Notley.

Complicating matters is the existence of the Wildrose Independence Party and the separatist Maverick Party, the latter led by former Conservative MP Jay Hill. While their polling numbers don’t pose much of a threat today, it would only take a few UCP MLAs willing to sit in the legislature under a new banner to cause greater problems for the Premier.

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It’s difficult to say if we’re anywhere near that point. I suspect we’re still a long way from seeing any UCP floor-crossers. But the dissidents in Mr. Kenney’s caucus have been emboldened. They know the Premier can’t kick them all out and that they have him over the proverbial barrel.

It’s almost as if these 17 MLAs are saying: What are you going to do about it?

Alberta’s rural MLAs are a tough, often ornery bunch. They have an independent streak that makes managing them often difficult. The Premier is likely hoping that, post-pandemic, fences can be mended, differences cast aside. That all will come to their senses and realize the NDP is the real enemy.

There is also a good chance there will be a federal election in the coming months, which will galvanize the centre-right in Alberta against Mr. Trudeau’s Liberals. Mr. Kenney and his dissident MLAs will unite in their contempt for the Prime Minister.

So while it may be too early to label this uprising a fatal development for Mr. Kenney, it’s one that has made a weakened premier more vulnerable than ever.

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