The last federal Tory with a glistening resumé and a big name who tried to ride to the rescue of Progressive Conservatives in Alberta was Jim Prentice.
As we all know, Mr. Prentice's tenure as provincial Tory leader and Alberta premier was brief and problem-plagued. Giving his blessing to a disastrous plot to "unite the right" in the form of a hideously botched floor crossing by Wildrose leader Danielle Smith and eight of her opposition colleagues was unquestionably his single greatest mistake. Widely viewed as cynical and unethical, the treasonous scheme would pave the way for the New Democratic Party's historic election win in 2015, ending 44 years of Tory rule.
This background is relevant when considering the recent news that former federal Conservative minister Jason Kenney is now himself mulling a bid for the Tory leadership in Alberta. Whether he's truly serious or just sending up a trial balloon isn't clear. (He's also not ruling out a run for the leadership of the federal Conservatives.) He's remaining coy on his provincial ambitions. If nothing else, however, early reaction to the idea might give him pause.
Unlike Mr. Prentice, who was practically begged to rescue the party in the wake of Alison Redford's troubled reign, Mr. Kenney's path to power would be much more difficult. People have long memories in politics, and there are many inside the Alberta Tories who recall with much resentment Mr. Kenney's often turbulent relationship with the party and his open support of Wildrose.
It is also fair to say many within the new power circle running the PCs are not enamoured with the man or his ideology. There is a view that a social conservative such as Mr. Kenney is precisely the wrong person to be leading a revived Conservative party in the province. Several Tory insiders I spoke to believe the right person has to be a fiscal conservative with a more progressive, centrist mindset when it comes to social issues – one who reflects the changing demographic nature of the province itself.
And there are other, more practical matters that stand in the Calgary MP's way.
The Alberta Tories have changed the mechanism for electing a leader. It is no longer one member, one vote, which allowed candidates to sign up clusters of new members in certain heavily populated areas. Now, each of the 87 riding associations will send 16 delegates to the convention. That means the leadership candidates are going to have to tour the entire province trying to sell themselves. This process would favour someone with a broader reach inside the party than Mr. Kenney.
If he's up against a group of candidates who resent him, for whatever reason, that could also become an issue. One could easily see an Anybody But Jason movement forming, with candidates who get dropped from the ballot at a leadership convention urging their delegates to vote for someone other than the latest aspiring saviour.
Personally, I think the bigger concern with Mr. Kenney's ruminations about the future of conservative politics in his home province is his belief that the right has to unite under a single banner.
Firstly, that is not going to happen. The wounds from the Danielle Smith affair are still too fresh for both parties. Wildrose Leader Brian Jean is not going anywhere, despite chronic concerns among many in his party that he will never win an election. (Also, there is no legal mechanism to merge the two parties.) More interesting, however, is what is happening inside the Progressive Conservative camp.
All but presumed dead after the last election, the Alberta Tories have found new life. A thousand delegates showed up at their convention in Red Deer in May. Far from being a sombre affair, the mood was hopeful and upbeat. Opinion polls show the Tories competitive with other parties. Many are encouraged with the direction new party president Katherine O'Neill has set.
Ms. O'Neill has vowed to return the party to its former formidable self. While certainly early days, people say she is
methodically rebuilding the Tory machine and bolstering confidence within the party in the process. This fresh, positive thinking would be anathema to any talk about uniting the right.
In fact, you're more likely to hear people in the party say that the Alberta Tories were given life nearly 50 years ago by splitting the right-wing vote, not uniting it. It's perhaps a thought that bears repeating.
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