This past August, Brian Jean posted a series of tweets that amounted to a call for a new style of politics in Alberta.
For most political observers, however, the thread was less political manifesto than political challenge – and the former federal MP and former leader of the provincial Wildrose Party was taking dead aim at Premier Jason Kenney’s leadership.
Back then, the province was in the throes of a deadly fourth wave – one almost everyone blamed on the Premier for his ill-informed decision to declare the pandemic over at the beginning of July. Within weeks, case numbers were through the roof, ICU units were overflowing with people and help was being sought from neighbouring provinces.
It was pretty clear from Mr. Jean’s August Twitter thread that something was in the works. At the time, it sounded like he was promoting a new political entity in the mould of the Saskatchewan Party. Now, it seems, Mr. Jean has a different idea: take the Premier down from inside his own party.
This past weekend, Mr. Jean easily secured the United Conservative Party nomination for the riding of Fort McMurray-Lac La Biche, comfortably defeating Mr. Kenney’s favoured candidate, Joshua Gogo. A byelection must be called by mid-February. This would mean that, presuming Mr. Jean wins (as he’s expected to), he could have a seat in the legislature before the end of March.
That’s before Mr. Kenney faces a leadership review in April. Mr. Jean is on the record as saying that Mr. Kenney needs to resign. And he insists that all his energy will be devoted to this cause once he’s a legitimate member of the UCP caucus.
Mr. Kenney could refuse to allow Mr. Jean to stand as a candidate in the byelection by not signing his papers. But almost no one believes that will happen. It would be viewed extremely poorly inside the UCP.
A more likely scenario is that Mr. Jean gets summarily kicked out of caucus shortly after his arrival. It’s clear he doesn’t support the Premier and is actively working to undermine his leadership. Mr. Jean is currently out on a tour of the province, during which he’s pledged to listen to the concerns of Albertans – he’ll no doubt get an earful about the Premier, whose popularity numbers are at historic lows.
This will help amplify Mr. Jean’s primary point: A UCP with Jason Kenney leading it will get demolished by Rachel Notley and the New Democratic Party in the next election.
Why would any provincial leader allow someone promoting that view to sit in their caucus? Answer: they wouldn’t. Discussions are undoubtedly underway to deal with this matter relatively promptly, should Mr. Jean be successful in the byelection whenever it’s held. The case could surely be made by Mr. Kenney and his backers that Mr. Jean’s efforts could destroy the UCP and all but assure an NDP victory in the next election.
Mr. Jean will have his supporters inside the caucus as well, especially among rural MLAs who have not been fond of the COVID-19-related restrictions introduced by the Premier. Some of these same backbenchers have ties to the old Wildrose Party that Mr. Jean led.
The question is, how far are the anti-Kenney MLAs in the UCP caucus willing to go to support someone like Mr. Jean? Would they be willing to say: If he goes, we go? This, ahead of a leadership review? It’s hard to imagine a showdown like that happening – but it could.
Either way, Mr. Jean is bad news for Mr. Kenney, who recently emerged from a gathering of his party unscathed. The great confrontation with his detractors that was said to be brewing failed to materialize. They all got scared and kept their mouths shut.
Mr. Jean seems to possess a little more courage and moxie. He’s not backing down.
It is impossible to say how this all plays out. But one thing is certain: Mr. Kenney is surely furious. He’s trying to pull off one of the greatest political comebacks in Canadian history, which he would accomplish if he climbed back from approval ratings in the low 20s to win the next provincial election.
Unimaginable? Maybe not, especially with the province’s economy on the rebound and with COVID-19 possibly becoming less of a lethal threat to us all (emphasis on “possibly”). Mr. Kenney has recently sounded more upbeat and optimistic than he has in months.
But now he has Mr. Jean to contend with.
This could be one of the most fascinating – and potentially bloody – political fights we’ve seen in a while. Alberta’s political scene will be appointment viewing over the next several months.
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