Jason Kenney and Alberta – When Winning is Losing

Last night, Alberta Premier and United Conservative Party (UCP) Leader Jason Kenney announced he was stepping down as Leader of the UCP after the results of a leadership review vote that saw him receive a 51.4% vote of support in him staying as leader.

Even though Kenney “won” the leadership review and had previously declared that a vote of 50%+1 was enough for him to stay, Kenney clearly was hoping for a much stronger result in his favour.  Knowing that he faced an uphill battle for legitimacy within the party and caucus on such a narrow vote of support, Kenney chose to resign instead.

How Did We Get Here?

Like other Premiers, Jason Kenney faced numerous challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic when it came to imposing and then lifting lockdowns through numerous waves.  On average, Albertans were more likely to oppose hard lockdowns than those in other provinces, especially amongst small-c conservative voters who are the UCP’s voting base.

COVID’s Role

Kenney also suffered from a number of self-inflicted COVID time wounds.  For example, in December 2020 when the government instituted strong COVID lockdowns, a cabinet minister, several MLAs and the Premier’s Chief of Staff were found to have travelled abroad. At the same time the Premier and Chief Medical Officer of Health were telling Albertans not to travel or to celebrate Christmas with wide numbers of family and friends.

Plans to re-open the Alberta economy for the “Best Summer Ever” in 2021 resulted in another set of lockdowns in August and September due to rising case counts and high ICU occupancy.  A photo of Kenney with several key Cabinet Ministers and staff hosting a “working dinner” outside that didn’t follow COVID rules at the time left the impression of a Premier who believed in “rules for thee, but not for me”.

Internal Party Unity

But it wasn’t all about COVID.  From some on the right-side of the UCP, Kenney’s reluctance to push as hard as they would have liked for a “Fair Deal for Alberta” (even though Kenney went ahead with a referendum on some key proposals) was perceived as a failure to pursue the ideological purity that they thought they would get with Kenney as Premier.  Add in a party leader who was known to rely on a small coterie of key Ministers, MLAs and advisors, with a caucus whose vast majority had never been elected to anything previously meant that the kind of loyalty that usually exists in a party caucus never really had a chance to take hold.  As a result, open defiance of the Premier from within the caucus became an everyday reality.

What’s Next?

With Kenney stepping down as Leader, the United Conservatives will need to choose an interim Leader later today from within the Caucus.  Kenney will remain as Premier until he formally resigns that position, which likely will be shortly after the UCP chooses a new permanent Leader.  Once the UCP chooses that leader, Premier Kenney would likely inform the Lieutenant-Governor of his resignation and that individual would be sworn in as Premier.

The question that remains is who will run for the leadership of the UCP and ultimately be a short-term Premier before the next election in 2023?  Key Cabinet Ministers like and Minister of Environment Jason Nixon and Doug Schweitzer (Jobs, Economy and Innovation) will almost certainly put their names forward. Others, including current Health Minister Jason Copping and Travis Toews (Finance and Treasury Board), are being pushed to consider seeking the leadership, given the hole Kenney’s departure creates. Former Wildrose Party Leaders Brian Jean and Danielle Smith have already indicated that if the job became vacant, they would seek the leadership (and pieces of Jean’s 2017 leadership team have been quite active during the leadership review).

The one wildcard in all of this is actually…Jason Kenney.  The Calgary Herald’s Don Braid has suggested that Kenney may actually seek to run and win the leadership he just stepped down from, which would certainly make for a fascinating, no-holds-barred race between Kenney and his biggest critics.

In any case, Alberta politics is never boring, and if you thought that the Battle of Alberta was actually the Edmonton Oilers vs. Calgary Flames, you might want to look instead under the dome of Alberta’s Legislative Assembly in Edmonton for the real Battle of Alberta.

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