Alberta Premier Jason Kenney shocked pretty much everyone in May when he announced he would step down as leader of the United Conservative Party (UCP), having received approval from just 51.4% of party members in a leadership review.
While the numbers indicated a leader in trouble, Kenney had long vowed to stay on if he received even a single vote over the 50% threshold. But the day the results were announced, he fell on his sword, triggering a leadership contest.
Kenney has faced internal strife for much of his premiership. It came to a head in March, when a caucus revolt forced the review. Many are upset by Kenney’s handling of the pandemic, by his flip-flop on coal-mining policies and by a number of scandals involving cabinet ministers. This reprimand of Kenney’s leadership comes despite dropping Covid-19 numbers in the province, a humming economy buoyed by high oil prices and a slew of public spending announcements backed by a projected budget surplus this year.
But the knives came out, led by a number of rural and small-town members of the legislative assembly (MLAs). Momentum grew and the party saw a surge in new memberships leading up to the vote, suggesting a motivated and angry base.
The future promises to be no less intriguing.
Former Wildrose Party leader Brian Jean, now MLA for Fort McMurray, immediately threw his hat into the ring, saying the vote was a rebuke of Kenney’s “divisive and autocratic leadership.”
There is no love lost between the two, after Kenney beat Jean in the UCP’s founding convention in 2017. That campaign was marred by Kenney’s alleged support for a sham third candidate whose only role was to draw votes from Jean. Alberta’s Office of the Election Commissioner has been investigating that matter and has levied more than $200,000 in fines against the sham candidate, campaign staff and straw donors. The RCMP also maintains an open investigation into the matter.
Finance Minister Travis Toews and Danielle Smith, also a former Wildrose Party leader, have entered the contest as well. Smith and eight other Wildrose MLAs crossed the floor to join the Progressive Conservatives (PCs) in 2014. However, she lost the PC nomination in her Highwood riding in 2015, and she spent much of the intervening years working as a radio talk-show host.
UCP officials are working on rules for the new contest. It’s not clear if Kenney’s status as interim leader disqualifies him from running, but it looks like his time as an elected official may be just about over.
Whoever wins the leadership will have to quickly bridge the gap between libertarian Wildrose Party adherents and more traditional PC members. Waiting in the wings is an invigorated New Democratic Party (NDP), led by former premier Rachel Notley. The NDP has a strong Opposition presence, with many of its leading MLAs in important critic roles. Kenney’s low polling numbers over the past 18 months suggest the NDP has a good chance of forming a government again next year.
Conversely, Kenney’s departure may give the UCP a boost as it turns to fresh leadership. The next provincial election is scheduled for May 2023.