Jason Kenney, who resigned Wednesday night as leader of the Alberta United Conservative Party he helped create, governed Alberta exactly as if someone had handed him a relatively simple playbook at the start of his second political career. “Set aside the culture-war crap if you can help yourself,” it might have read. (And he did!) “You’re back in Alberta: spend your time running against Ottawa. That always works. The Lord gave you a Trudeau in 24 Sussex. Be the happy warrior. Keep the kooks to the fringes. Obey Peter Lougheed’s principle and try to refer to the existence of a political opposition as rarely as possible. The rest will take care of itself.”
Turns out it doesn’t. No one, in my view, has really cracked the mystery of how Jason Kenney managed to divide his party right down the middle like a jeweller — a fact revealed by his 51.4 per cent “victory” in the formal leadership review that he had done as much as possible to conduct under favourable conditions. The political hand Kenney was dealt was far from perfect. The very creation of the UCP, cobbled together from the bones of two dying parties, was bound to create a nucleus of resentment among those who lost power or face in the bargain. His major rival for the leadership of the party, Brian Jean, pursued revision of his defeat with the intensity of a neutron star.
And the COVID-19 pandemic created two roughly equal groups of devoted, wide-awake, Kenney-hating keyboard warriors. There were those who were sure that Alberta’s disease-control policies (indistinguishable over time from those of NDP-led B.C.) were a communist plot to steal children, and there were the COVID-phobic self-mummifiers who thought the same policies were a fascist plot to kill children.
History will make note of this puzzle when the history of the Kenney premiership is written, but COVID is not the cause of death. Just about every other political incumbent on the planet seems to have gotten a bonus from COVID: Kenney’s sagging approval numbers are already a recognized paradox. The man lost an appalling chunk of his caucus in a pretty short time: my fellow Postmedia columnist Rick Bell got 10 or so MLAs on the record opposing their leader, and the real figure was probably closer to 20. His support amongst the colonels and majors of the party, the riding association bosses and regional bigwigs, was self-evidently much worse.
Carson Jerema: Jason Kenney quits as Alberta’s conservative movement eats itself
Alberta Premier Jason Kenney resigns as UCP leader after getting 51.4% support in leadership review
Few of these people were noticeable for being COVID zanies, and many did not invoke COVID regulations as a reason for disliking the premier. They had just expected a different style of leadership. Kenney, facing the task of constructing a conservative union party, tried to gather a tight, fierce inner circle like the one Stephen Harper had as prime minister. This can work if the group you form has a very high standard of professionalism and dedication, but some of Kenney’s choices backfired on him badly.
Others outside the innermost group, like Kaycee Madu, added unforced errors. Combine that with the unresolved legal questions about Kenney’s original leadership-race victory, and maybe even the overengineering of the final leadership-review showdown, and you’ve got an Alberta Conservative government with a decidedly Liberal odour.
All the while Kenney practiced retail politics with deftness, but in retrospect there is something lonesome and weird about his personal campaigning by truck. Kenney, possibly influenced by the experience of late Premier Jim Prentice, seems to have felt that he needed work to re-establish his western bona fides after years in Ottawa. Cosplay wasn’t the way, even if it works for Justin Trudeau. You’re not going to win over a province of four million people through exercise of the common touch, and Kenney’s personal charm, which is not inconsiderable, conflicted with the strategic viciousness he employed to secure and then hold UCP leadership. His policy medicine didn’t always taste so hot either: de-indexing tax brackets and welfare payments, and thus subjecting everyone in Alberta to a “bracket creep” phenomenon Kenney made his reputation denouncing, was a low point.
The people who voted to fling the United Conservatives into the void will say Kenney wasn’t much of a unifier. He’ll probably think privately that his caucus enemies wouldn’t recognize unity if they lived there. He certainly tolerated chimpanzee behaviour from UCP dissenters that any of our last four prime ministers would have punished with crucifixion. Conservatives in Alberta sometimes seem to be waiting for an Arthurian return of Ralph Klein, and Kenney, a priest manqué and career politician who had been a major tormentor of Ralph Klein, was a poor fit for the role.
In any case it’s hard to see a legitimate question of ideology in all this. Kenney’s successor in the leadership, whoever that is, won’t have a policy agenda that is two per cent different from Kenney’s. There is no reason a conservative party can’t go on winning elections in Alberta with Kenney policies: squinching public-sector salaries closer to the national norm, allowing un soupçon of private health care, fighting for the legitimacy of resource development, and opening the still-lucrative Alberta trades to women and underrepresented groups.
But no one from the Kenney camp has the lineaments of an obvious successor, and the people thought to have positive intentions to succeed him, Danielle Smith and Brian Jean, are best known for having already lost Alberta elections. Is one of these people still the first choice of the Wildrosers they once led? Is Jean, having practiced vendetta very expertly from his northern hideaway, likely to have an easier time preaching loyalty and unity than his predecessor? Conservatives may be asking themselves “Good Lord, what have we done?” Thursday morning, and even Alberta’s New Democrats can’t quite make up their minds whether they just had a wonderful day or received a bad tactical blow.