For Alberta Conservatives, Jason Kenney has become the man of yesterday

In these strange times for politics in Alberta, the following two things may be true at the same time:

  1. Jason Kenney is one of the most ideologically conservative people to ever hold a high-level position in the federal cabinet or the presidency of the prime minister – let alone both – with a background that includes both values socially conservative and pre-political work at the Canadian Taxpayers Federation.
  2. A near majority (48.6%) of United Conservatives voted to reject Jason Kenney’s leadership, largely because he was not conservative enough for their liking.

This may seem jarring to observers outside of Alberta, and cause the other large group of Albertans who are unsettled by Kenney’s right-wing impulses and actions to laugh derisively. But history will remember that after 25 years in politics, Jason Kenney was ousted from office by conservatives who did not consider him up to it.

“We must put the past behind us,” the prime minister said in his resignation announcement. It is now part of Alberta’s past; a future will be forged without it. Until now, he may never have seen himself as the yesterday’s man of Western conservatism.

As we see now within the federal party as well, Conservative activists in Alberta are figuring out exactly how conservative they want their party and leader to be. The pandemic, convoy protests and the durability of a Trudeau Liberal government seemed to move that needle.

It’s not the same conversation about right-wing ideals as when Kenney became premier in 2019, let alone when he acquired a blue van and entered provincial politics in 2016.

Remembering Kenney the Militant

Ah, ideals. Kenney had so much when he launched this plan to merge the Progressive Conservative and Wildrose parties with the common goal of ousting Rachel Notley’s NDP from power and putting Alberta in better shape to fight against Ottawa, critics of the oil sector and other forces that hold power. province to be in top economic shape.

He had also learned the harsh realities and compromises necessary to govern as Prime Minister under Stephen Harper. A fiscal hawk who championed massive deficit spending during the 2008 financial crash wouldn’t have felt completely uncomfortable being a libertarian enacting strict civil liberties and trade restrictions during a global health emergency.

Jason Kenney drove around the province in a blue Dodge Ram during his campaign to merge the Progressive Conservatives and the Wildrose party into a united party. (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press)

But he had invited into his makeshift right-wing coalition the Wildrosers, born out of disenchantment with the moderation and centrism of Alberta’s Conservative governments. They tend to seek the liveliness of a rallying speech, not the ambiguities of a lengthy explanation at a press conference.

Kenney has had to offer more of the latter over the past two years, as he has done things like institute the mask and vaccine mandates he decried days earlier, or explain the failure of a 1.3 billion dollars freshly invested in the doomed Keystone XL pipeline.

The UCP base was offered a few different Jason Kenneys – Jasons Kenney? — and often seemed to prefer whoever was less tempered by the realities of Alberta’s situation, or by the fact that potentially larger shares of Albertans wanted their premier to get tougher on COVID and easier on the federal affairs, not the other way around.

As the pandemic wave progressed, supporters increasingly spoke of a breach of trust with their leader, an often fatal challenge for the official. And if the desire to win against the NDP was the sinews of this big tent, they have surely frayed after more than a year of polls, showing almost all of Notley’s party with a comfortable lead.

With this vote, the members of the UCP seem to have determined that the earlier, more idealistic incarnation of Jason Kenney no longer existed, so they opted to seek someone else to lead.

Forgetting Prime Minister Kenney

Danielle Smith and Brian Jean, the former executives of Wildrose, declared their candidacies before there was a leadership race – and each will offer a return to those unshakeable values ​​that Kenney espoused, and perhaps delve into areas where Kenney had not dared to go, such as Smith’s doubt climate science or Jean’s forays into “Great Reset” conspiracy theory.

Expect Cabinet ministers to also enter the fray. They kept their powder dry during the party’s regicide offensive, lest the king’s head remain on his shoulders. People like Finance Minister Travis Toews or Jobs Minister Doug Schweitzer might promise to continue Kenney’s agenda more or less, but with a different tone and style. They will be excluded from the race when the caucus meets to appoint one of its MPs as interim party leader and full Premier of Alberta – he or she would get their portrait painted on the walls of the Assembly legislation, security details and all that.

Determined by the prime minister, the UCP could be thrust into the same sort of battle for its soul as the federal party, with heated debates about how the party should be doctrinaire or pragmatic. They will argue over whether the leader’s main goal is to appeal to the conservative base or the broad electorate. Or, as various proponents will no doubt argue, whether the two overlap enough.

United Conservatives cast their vote at the party’s 2019 annual meeting. In a leadership review by mail-in vote, 51.4% of UCP members endorsed Kenney, but he announced he would step down after being given such a narrow margin. (Dave Chidley/The Canadian Press/CBC News illustration)

The balance to come

Either way, the next leader needs to jump into this prime minister’s chair and run a government of nearly $60 billion a year, while putting his own stamp on things. At the same time, this successor must put the UCP in general election shape against an NDP team that has remained calmly united all this time, recruiting candidates, raising funds and even air television commercials.

And that individual will be heavily preoccupied with the task of unifying this badly fractured ruling party and preventing leaks to the right or to the center.

Because after all, former Tories are no less prone to rage at their own boss than the Wildrosers. They dumped Ralph Klein before the end of his last term, then Ed Stelmach, then Alison Redford. In fact, of Alberta’s seven premiers over the past two decades, only one has managed to hold office for an entire term.

She is the only one who is not conservative.