Duane Bratt is a political-science professor and chair, Department of Economics, Justice and Policy Studies, at Mount Royal University in Calgary.
For weeks, Alberta Premier Jason Kenney had maintained that he only needed 50 per cent + 1 in the United Conservative Party leadership review. So when the results were announced on May 18, and Mr. Kenney received 51.4 per cent, the Premier shocked the room – and Albertans – by announcing his intent to resign.
This was the right decision. No leader can survive with almost half of their party opposed to him. But it was still a huge surprise, especially since Mr. Kenney is a political lifer with few interests outside of politics. He rarely acknowledges defeat and had previously claimed that his opponents were extremists and kooks.
What does this mean for the UCP? The UCP is a new party. It was created in 2017 with a merger of two conservative legacy parties: Progressive Conservative and Wildrose.
The PCs and Wildrose had fought for years and were rife with divisions (urban vs. rural, social conservatives vs. fiscal conservatives, pragmatic vs. ideological, etc). What united them was their shared opposition to the NDP, which had formed government in 2015 and had benefited from the split among conservative parties.
Initially, the UCP was an overwhelming success. The party won a majority government in 2019 and went to work trying to repeal as many NDP policies as possible. However, the internal tensions within the UCP were always under the surface. They started to emerge with Mr. Kenney’s first cabinet. Despite a large number of rural Alberta UCP MLAs, Mr. Kenney’s cabinet was dominated by MLAs from Calgary (the NDP swept all but one seat in Edmonton).
In addition, Mr. Kenney favoured newly elected UCP MLAs for his cabinet, shutting out those that had been PC and Wildrose MLAs (with the exception of former PC minister Rick McIver). Mr. Kenney wanted people loyal to him and the new party, not those tied to the legacy parties
When the pandemic hit in early 2020, it only exacerbated the internal cleavages within the UCP. Rural UCP MLAs, who had been left out of cabinet, agitated against restrictions on businesses, schools, sporting events and churches – and especially vaccine mandates. They felt that Mr. Kenney went too far in limiting civil liberties in his policy response to COVID-19.
Meanwhile, urban voters, along with some UCP MLAs, argued the opposite: Mr. Kenney’s COVID-19 restrictions were too weak, applied too late and removed too early.
During the UCP leadership review, the coalition of anti-Kenney forces united these factions. For example, there were rural MLAs who were vocal in their opposition to Mr. Kenney (Brian Jean, Jason Stephan, Dave Hanson, Peter Guthrie, Angela Pitt). Likewise, there were urban/moderate MLAs who wanted Mr. Kenney removed (Leela Aheer and Richard Gotfried).
As with the formation of the UCP, when opposition to the NDP united the various conservative factions, opposition to Mr. Kenney did the same.
However, now that there will be an official UCP leadership race, candidates who represent one faction of the party will have trouble attracting support from the other parts. Likely candidates include those from the UCP’s rural/ideological wing (Mr. Jean, Danielle Smith, Travis Toews), as well as those from the urban/moderate wing (Doug Schweitzer, Rajan Sawhney).
All parties have their factions, but what is different about conservatives, especially Prairie conservatives, is their willingness to create new parties. Think of the Reform Party at the federal level and Western Canada Concept, Alberta Alliance, Wildrose and Maverick parties at the provincial level.
What is also interesting is that these conservative parties tend to merge while in opposition, but split apart once they are in power. The Wildrose broke away from the Alberta Progressive Conservatives during the PC dynasty years. The Reform Party broke away from the federal PCs when Brian Mulroney was in office and later, the Canadian Alliance and Progressive Conservatives merged in opposition to a Liberal government.
Having come together when the NDP was in power provincially, the UCP now looks set to splinter while the party is still in government.
Clearly, Mr. Kenney’s leadership style – top-down, combative, demonizing of critics, unable to listen or apologize (he was accused of cheating during the 2017 leadership race and 2022 leadership review) – was a major reason for his downfall. But the internal divides within the UCP were such that it was unlikely any leader could hold the party together.
If Jason Kenney, the smart, competent, experienced, hard-working architect of the party’s formation, couldn’t unite the UCP, then no future leader will be able to do it either.
The 2023 provincial election will be fought between the NDP, what is left of the UCP and a number of other conservative parties that are likely to have splintered from the UCP.
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