Alberta Premier Jason Kenney will remain at the helm of the United Conservative Party until a new leader is chosen, the UCP caucus said on Thursday.
“We have affirmed Premier Jason Kenney’s continued leadership of our caucus and government until such time as a new leader is chosen, the timing of which will be determined by the United Conservative Party,” caucus chair Nathan Neudorf said in a statement released late Thursday afternoon.
Neudorf’s announcement comes after UCP MLAs met in Calgary’s McDougall Centre for most of the day to discuss the future of the party, and the provincial government.
Neudorf’s statement said MLAs had a “vigorous discussion and debate” about the party’s future, and agreed to “remain united” and focused on the job Albertans elected them to do.
On Wednesday night, Kenney said he’d asked the party to call a leadership race after he earned a sliver more than a majority of votes in a party leadership review.
Kenney also tweeted a copy of a letter he said he sent Thursday to the party’s secretary, signalling his intention to resign once the party selects a new leader. It’s unclear as of yet when that could be.
Please see my letter to the <a href=”https://twitter.com/Alberta_UCP?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>@Alberta_UCP</a> Secretary Janis Nett. <a href=”https://t.co/Q0ZSDVuIa4″>pic.twitter.com/Q0ZSDVuIa4</a>
On their way into the meeting Thursday, several MLAs who have previously called for Kenney’s resignation said the caucus should immediately appoint an interim leader, and premier.
“The healing process can’t start until Jason Kenney leaves,” said Fort McMurray-Lac La Biche MLA Brian Jean, who is gunning to become the party’s permanent new leader. “He knows that. We know that. And we need to start the renewal process of the UCP.”
Others who aren’t publicly expressing any leadership aspirations said they also hoped to select an interim leader right away.
“We need to rebuild trust with Albertans and today is going to be our first step in doing that,” said MLA Peter Guthrie, who has previously called on Kenney to resign.
Guthrie said the party needs an interim leader to win back public trust.
MLA Leela Aheer said selecting an interim leader is the “most imperative next step.”
“This is really a beautiful day for hope,” said Aheer, who has also previously called for Kenney’s resignation. “I think the only thing that most of us wanted was to be able to have a leadership race and to engage with our public and earn back their trust and be with people.”
Party members and constituency associations disenchanted with Kenney’s leadership style and COVID-19 public health restrictions had pushed since 2020 for an earlier leadership review.
Kenney’s critics have pointed to Rachel Notley’s NDP leading in most public opinion polls during the last 18 months, saying the UCP needed to find a new leader to be ready for a scheduled May 2023 general election.
After a controversial mail-in balloting process, the party announced Wednesday night Kenney had the support of 51.4 per cent of the 34,298 party members whose ballots were counted.
Kenney said that mandate wasn’t resounding enough to remain as party leader.
Kenney could run in any party leadership race, and has not yet ruled that out.
MLAs who have previously said they supported the premier said they were surprised by both the result and the premier’s announcement.
Lac Ste. Anne-Parkland MLA Shane Getson described it as gracious, noble and admirable for Kenney to put the party’s interests ahead of his own.
Jeremy Nixon, who represents Calgary-Klein, didn’t rule out interest in either interim or permanent party leadership.
Independent MLA Drew Barnes, who was booted out of caucus a year ago for publicly speaking against the leader, said he’s open to re-joining the UCP caucus — but only after Kenney is no longer at the helm.
“The most important thing today is for Jason Kenney to leave — for Jason Kenney to follow through with what he said last night, when he clearly said, he didn’t have the mandate and the respect of Albertans,” Barnes said.
MLAs said they didn’t know how long they would meet on Thursday or what decisions about the party’s future they would make today.
Leadership hopefuls already circling
Also Thursday morning, former Wildrose Party leader Danielle Smith reiterated her intent to run for party leader.
Smith said she plans to run for the UCP nomination in the Livingstone-McLeod riding, which includes her home in High River.
Smith said she wants to see in-person voting stations across the province for the leadership race, and hopes it’s a crowded field of fresh and experienced candidates.
Many political watchers remember – and are still angry with – Smith for when she and eight other Wild Rose MLAs crossed the legislature floor in 2014 to join Jim Prentice’s Progressive Conservatives.
“It’s very clear that Jim and I made a big error in how we tried to bring the conservative movement together,” Smith told reporters in a virtual press conference Thursday morning.
Smith said she’s evolved and grown in the last eight years, and hopes voters judge her on her current perspectives and not her past.
She described herself as a mainstream conservative and also said she’d like to find ways to give amnesty or stay charges against people and businesses who were prosecuted for breaching COVID-19 pandemic public health laws.