Jason Kenney’s capitulation as UCP leader is a catalyst for more chaos in Alberta politics

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney fell on his own sword rather than be repeatedly stabbed in the back for the next year.

Actually, it’s not clear if Kenney voluntarily exited the top position or was pushed by senior members of the United Conservative Party who wanted the endless infighting over his leadership to stop.

And that fighting was not going to end with a vote Wednesday evening that gave Kenney a razor-thin victory of 51.4 per cent to 48.6 per cent.

Keep in mind Kenney has insisted for months he’d be satisfied with getting the most simple of majorities: 50 per cent of the vote plus one ballot.

And with Kenney’s track record of ignoring critics and brazening through tough times, it seemed very likely he’d do that again, even with the tiniest of mandates.

Just a few days ago, as he took something of a victory lap in Washington D.C. for being invited to speak to the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy, Kenney told the reporters he didn’t need overwhelming support to stay on as party leader.

It seemed Kenney was beginning to parse the vote days in advance, looking for ways to justify why he would stay on.

He argued that a significant number of new party members were nothing more than political malcontents using the leadership vote to create trouble for him and the UCP.

He said it was unfair to compare his own leadership review with those of other Alberta premiers, including Ralph Klein who received a humiliating 55 per cent in 2006 and stepped down as party leader and premier soon after.

“This is a totally different dynamic,” said Kenney. “People who are saying (I have) to get, say, 90 per cent or something (similar) really aren’t appreciating the different context of this.”

It was certainly a different context — one created by an unprecedented pandemic, a health system at times on the verge of collapse, disastrously low oil prices, a rebellious caucus, and a profound unhappiness by a majority of Albertans over his mishandling of the multiple crises.

Kenney, whose default setting seems chronically stuck on hubris, became his own worst enemy.

But he is nothing if not stubborn.

He seemed ready to brazen his way through once again even if the bravado was based on nothing but a one-ballot majority.

But then on Wednesday evening, as the results of the leadership vote were delayed again and again, speculation about his future began to percolate on social media.

Was Kenney in a tug-of-war behind the scenes with senior members of the UCP, who wanted him to step down as leader despite his desire to stay on and continue fighting?

Or did the awful reality of the situation dawn on him as unsurvivable and he simply needed time to collect himself before conceding defeat?

Fascinating scenarios, but all moot now.

“The result is not what I hoped for or frankly what I expected,” Kenney told a sombre and surprised audience at a “Unity Party” in Calgary.

“While 51 per cent of the vote passes the constitutional threshold of a majority, it clearly is not adequate support to continue on as leader.”

He announced he’d be stepping down as leader of the UCP but it wasn’t clear if he’s stepping down immediately or after the party members elect a new leader later this year.

He could well stay on as premier, if the precedent created by Ralph Klein and Ed Stelmach is anything to go on, until a new leader is chosen.

And as leader of the governing party, that new leader will become premier.

So, Alberta politics has now abruptly switched gears.

Kenney’s track record of ignoring critics and brazening through tough times made it seem very likely he’d do that again even with the tiniest of mandates, writes Graham Thomson. (Dave Chidley/The Canadian Press)

After obsessing over Kenney’s future, we are now about to be obsessed over who will replace him as UCP leader and premier.

Brian Jean, former Wildrose leader and Kenney’s political nemesis, is keenly interested, of course.

“In the next several days I expect the party will announce a leadership race, and I intend to put my name forward,” said Jean in a statement just minutes after Kenney announced his fate.

Danielle Smith, another former Wildrose leader, also issued a statement to say she will hold a news conference Thursday morning to discuss her plans.

What about members of Kenney’s cabinet?

Kenney was not grooming anyone to replace him, but names that have been bandied about for fun by gossiping pundits over the past year include Finance Minister Travis Toews, Energy Minister Sonya Savage, Jobs Minister Doug Schweitzer, Transportation Minister Rajan Sawhney, and Health Minister Jason Copping.

Let the jockeying begin.

But because Alberta politics is always something of a clown car disgorging Bozos by the dozen, there is already speculation from some quarters that Kenney is merely licking his wounds and will be back.

New West Public Affairs, an organization run by former federal cabinet minister and Kenney-friend Monte Solberg, issued a newsletter Wednesday night with this bit of analysis: “While he did not declare his intention to run in the leadership race, Kenney also did not rule it out. This did not sound like a Jason Kenney who was ready to pack up his bags and leave.”

Oh, boy.

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