There was only one way to upstage the hockey Battle of Alberta. Premier Jason Kenney found it, to his sorrow, by stepping off the stage entirely.
Despite predictions of a solid victory, only 51.4 per cent of more than 34,000 UCP members who voted in the leadership review said they approved of him.
Kenney had previously said that “50 per cent plus one” is the majority in a democracy, implying that was enough for him to continue. (Late Wednesday, there was talk he may attempt to stay on as party leader and premier until the leadership election is resolved.)
He could stay on into a future of bitter division, with his party critics hounding him ever closer to the exit.
More months of that would almost certainly have brought devastating defeat at the hands of the NDP next May.
So Kenney resigned in a dramatic way, first saying he had his majority but suddenly adding: “It is clearly not adequate support to carry on as leader . . . I truly believe we need to move forward together, we need to put the past behind us.”
The small gathering of his strongest loyalists, an invited group that didn’t include many UCP ministers and MLAs, was shocked both by the result and the resignation.
Kenney asked the UCP board to set a date for a new leadership election. But the province will have a new premier long before that happens.
On Thursday, UCP MLAs will carry out one of the most serious functions a government caucus ever exercises. They’ll either choose an interim leader who will become full premier, or agree to do it very quickly.
On Tuesday I named several UCP members whose names were already being mentioned.
They include Nate Glubish (Service Alberta); Demetrios Nicolaides (Advanced Education), Rajan Sawhney (Transportation); Ric McIver (Municipal Affairs); Nathan Neudorf (UCP caucus chair); and Sonya Savage (Energy).
The person who gets the caretaker job will have the critical task of running the party and government while restoring an image of sensible competence and unity.
Then comes the crucial hunt for a premier chosen by the party to lead it into the election next May.
There will be a struggle over whether the UCP edges more to the centre, or veers sharply to the right. Many of the MLAs who opposed Kenney prefer the latter.
New MLA Brian Jean will run. Danielle Smith will likely join in, too. They’re well-known voices from the party’s past, but many members will want to move beyond the old merger struggles.
Jobs Minister Doug Schweitzer’s name often comes up. So does Finance Minister Travis Toews. Other campaigns will take shape very quickly.
Whoever wins, this remains a dangerous moment for the UCP.
The Progressive Conservatives never regained winning form after Premier Alison Redford quit in 2014. Dave Hancock became the caretaker and Jim Prentice the premier. But the NDP won the 2015 election, partly because of the long years of PC division.
Kenney’s biggest mistake, I think, was to preach party unity even as he attacked people on the fringe as lunatics and radicals.
He wasn’t talking about moderate UCP members who might disagree with him, but a lot of those people thought he was. That might have been the difference between 51.4 per cent and a survivable number.
Kenney’s political accomplishments have been remarkable. With ex-prime minister Stephen Harper’s backing, he launched a drive to unify the PCs and Wildrose, which led him to first win the PC leadership.
That was an awkward fit — Kenney owed far more to Social Credit than the PCs — but it led him directly to the negotiated union with Wildrose.
Then came the UCP leadership, followed by the 2019 election and premier’s office. Nobody had ever done anything like it in Alberta politics.
And now, a muted resignation before a small group of friends, the sharpest contrast imaginable with the adoring crowd of 3,000 that cheered him at his party’s founding meeting in 2018.
Even Kenney’s enemies will grasp the pain of that.
Don Braid’s column appears regularly in the Herald.