This column is the opinion of Graham Thomson, an award-winning journalist who has covered Alberta politics for more than 30 years. For more information on the CBC Opinion section, please see the FAQs.
May 18 is supposed to be the day Prime Minister Jason Kenney’s leadership fights come to a halt. This is the day we will know if Kenney survived the United Conservative Party leadership vote.
On paper, the result is simple and binary: either he wins and stays; or he loses and moves.
However, the only simple thing is what happens if he loses.
If so, he said he would step down and pave the way for a leadership race to replace him.
But what if he wins?
Specifically, what are the dissenting MPs who are loudly unhappy with Kenney doing? Do they bite their tongues and stay in the UCP caucus? Do they continue to rebel against Kenney as independent MPs?
For example, what is Airdrie-Cochrane MPP Peter Guthrie doing after posting a five-minute Facebook video last week eviscerating Kenney for promoting a “culture of fear” within the party?
What is Chestermere-Rocky View MP Leela Aheer doing after posting a tweet last fall asking Kenney “Resign!” and suggesting he was aware of complaints of sexual harassment in government.
What about others who have openly criticized Kenney’s leadership, including Airdrie East MP Angela Pitt, Red Deer South MP Jason Stephan, Bonnyville-Cold Lake-St. Paul, MPP Dave Hanson and, of course, Brian Jean, MPP for Fort McMurray-Lac La Biche?
During a brief conversation in the legislative hall, Guthrie told me, “We’ll have to wait and see.”
Jason Kenney is a professional politician and now he knows he has to step down and he has to do it for the good of the province.-Brian Jean
Aheer simply refused to engage with me in the hallway, saying she was too busy to talk. Others carefully refused to return my calls and/or emails.
Hanson, however, told me bluntly, “I don’t think he’ll win.”
Jean was more categorical. “He can’t get a survival number,” Jean said. “Jason Kenney is a professional politician and he now knows he has to step down and he has to do it for the good of the province.”
It’s perfectly understandable that anti-Kenney MPs don’t want to talk about the possibility of Kenney winning or what their plans will be in that scenario.
Even admitting that Kenney might eventually win the vote undermines their argument that he has lost party support.
To say that they would continue to attack Kenney if he won on May 18 means that they should either accuse the party executive of having organized an incompetent leadership vote that cannot be respected, or admit that they are defying a leader who won a legitimate vote.
Either way, they would be kicked out of the caucus – and allow the party to choose new UCP candidates to replace the mutineers.
They had become lame politicians who either faced the daunting task of running as independents or one day join a fringe party, like the Wildrose Independence Party. Or simply sink into political obscurity.
That would suit Kenney just fine.
As far as Kenney’s critics go, Calgary-Fish Creek MPP Richard Gotfried is an outlier. He walked a tightrope, criticizing Kenney for failing to deliver on his “people’s democracy” promise, but not calling on Kenney to resign.
Gotfried says he just wants a vote that will reflect the true feelings of party members, which he fears won’t happen under the current process where the party executive has arbitrarily changed the rules in favor of Kenney.
“The question at the end of this vote is, ‘Do we trust the process?’ Do we trust that there was no orchestration, manipulation? asks Gotfried.
He says the challenge the party will face if Kenney wins is reconnecting with Albertans: “We have to regain trust. We have lost a lot of the confidence of Albertans.
This raises a crucial factor in the outcome of the vote if Kenney wins. Does the importance of a victory matter?
Well, yes, it does.
If Kenney were to reach his own declared threshold of 50% of the vote plus one, he would face a badly fractured party and his critics would be emboldened to step up their attacks.
Even a 60/40 split in his favor would reveal a divided party.
What about 65 percent or even 70 percent?
It is then that we ask ourselves questions about the legitimacy of the vote. There is a tipping point here where the size of a Kenney win goes from raising questions about a split party to raising questions about a manipulated vote.
The May 18 results will not end the bitterness or resentment within the UCP.
But let’s turn those questions around and ask what Kenney will do if he wins and still faces sniping.
He has previously said he expects caucus members to rally behind him – and, ominously, said he was ‘far too tolerant of public expressions of opposition’.
What if they don’t?
Two scenarios are currently bouncing off the walls of the Legislative Assembly.
The first: Kenney reads the dissenters the Riot Act and if they continue to resist, he has them kicked out of caucus to wither on the vine as independent MPs. However, if all the rebels were to be expelled, they could join former UCP MPs Drew Barnes and Todd Loewen in forming an eight independent caucus in the legislature that would be eligible for additional funding for office staff and researchers.
So Kenney would face a well-organized and passionate group of Tories who would grill him during legislative sessions, including Question Period, not just this year but in the crucial pre-election session next spring. Kenney, mind you, would still have a strong majority with 55 seats and might be ready to come under attack from his former colleagues by attacking them in kind as political opportunists and sore losers.
The second: Not wanting to face a relentless barrage or embarrassing and clumsy attacks from former caucus members inside the legislature, Kenney is cutting the current session short. He spent the summer campaigning while the UCP chose candidates favorable to Kenney to replace the dissidents.
And then in the fall, he calls early elections. Yes, we are back in the speculation of an early election, something the NDP takes seriously and is actively preparing for.
Of course, if Kenney loses on May 18, the UCP will kick off a heated and potentially divisive leadership race.
No matter what happens that day, Alberta’s already wild politics will get even wilder.