Alberta Premier Jason Kenney has signaled his intention to resign from the leadership of the United Conservative Party following a party leadership review result that gave him only 51.4% support.
Following intense criticism from party members over his leadership, particularly with respect to pandemic management, Kenney’s decision will ultimately trigger a contentious leadership race with many familiar faces hoping to lead the UCP government into the next election.
This result could put wind in the sails of the opposition NDP, who stand to gain from dissention in the UCP ranks only one year from a general election. Alternatively, tonight’s events may be seen by some conservatives as a chance for renewal, allowing the UCP to choose a leader who could put up a better fight against Notley and win the next election.
The first order of business after tonight’s surprise resignation will be to choose an interim leader from the government caucus. Even this process could be somewhat fraught given the factions existing within the party. Drawn from those who declare they will not seek the leadership, the most likely outcome is that the caucus will select someone seen as a steady hand, who can keep government working on priority items in the interim. Finance Minister Travis Toews (one of the strongest and most steady Ministers), Energy Minister Sonya Savage (who may not seek re-election but is respected in caucus) and Municipal Affairs Minister Ric McIver (a stalwart who gets along with various caucus groups) could all be possibilities.
In terms of who will run for leadership – there are already several known-candidates and possible candidates at this stage:
Kenney’s first rival for the UCP leadership won his seat in the legislature centered on a campaign to remove Kenney and seek the top job. He has garnered plenty of media attention, but has yet to show the punching power of a heavyweight in his political career. Like Ted Morton, who delivered the final word on former Premier Ed Stelmach but could not win the top job – Jean faces an uphill battle but seems ready for it.
Smith announced earlier this year that she would both seek a UCP nomination to run in the next election and chase the top job if a contest was announced. Smith is well-known and broadly liked from her time in the media and political scene – but will face criticism based on her 2014 floor crossing from the Wildrose Party to the Prentice PC government. If she has learned from previous adventures and can capitalize on her unique support from both firebrands and moderates – she definitely has a chance.
While it remains to be seen whether the Minister of Children’s Services has leadership aspirations, one of the Premier’s strongest ministers would also be a serious contender were she to enter the race. Seen as capable on a wide range of files and very strong as a spokesperson for modern conservatism, she is a force. Whether the timing is right, and whether she ultimately wants the job, she will have to make her decision in the coming days. If she chooses not to run, her endorsement of another candidate will carry serious weight.
Premier Kenney’s closest ally and former Wildroser, Minister Nixon is assumed to be ready to seek the top job now that it is vacant. Nixon has experience with numerous large files in government and was front-and-center on the Premier’s recent Energy-focused trip to Washington, DC. While he will face criticism for his political style and may be more of an underdog than most outsiders would think – he should not be underestimated in this race.
Minister Schweitzer has been riding high recently on an avalanche of investment announcements in Alberta. Typically seen as a moderate voice in the party, Schweitzer is also a veteran of the first UCP leadership campaign. He may decide to sit this race out and his endorsement will carry serious power. He has a strong support structure behind him that will drive member support from Calgary and beyond.
Alberta has not had a political outsider challenge meaningfully for the top job in some time. But with the next election only one year away and the real possibility of an NDP government in 2023, other leading Alberta luminaries could be pressed into action. Names rumored in the past have included business leaders, media personalities, and non-profit leaders in Alberta.
Alberta politics continues to be a true gridiron battle – with no end in sight. Counsel can keep you ahead of the game with insights and advice to make sure your voice is heard.