In winning the Fort McMurray-Lac La Biche UCP nomination, Brian Jean has transformed from an irritating thorn in Premier Jason Kenney’s side into a dagger. Kenney’s renowned ability for political organization failed him, as Jean didn’t just win the nomination, he trounced his opponent Joshua Gogo with 68% support. This is problematic for Kenney on a number of levels.
Kenney has been desperate to win back the confidence of his party as his personal support levels hit record lows, for any premier in the modern history of polling in Alberta. Kenney’s best hope of convincing skittish UCP MLAs to continue supporting him is to maintain their belief he will be able to recover support and win the next election. Rather than instilling confidence among his caucus members that he has the support of grassroots members, Jean’s win has further shaken confidence in the leader.
Every democratic exercise in the UCP right now has been turned into a proxy vote on Jason Kenney’s leadership. The Fort McMurray-Lac La Biche nomination was no exception. Kenney loyalists traveled north in force and aided with Gogo’s nomination campaign, all for naught. Their efforts yielded an embarrassing 250 votes.
No matter how well organized you may be, you can’t win these kinds of races without at least some degree of support from the public. One has to wonder how many memberships sold by the Gogo campaign actually turned into votes for Jean when the ballots were cast. Everybody knew this was a race between Kenney and Jean. Kenney supporters are just too far and few between right now.
Kenney has painted himself into a corner. In repeatedly welcoming Brian Jean to the race and stating that he will welcome Jean into his caucus if he wins the by-election, it is going to be hard to find a way out of this. The by-election in Fort McMurray-Lac La Biche has to be called by February 14. Kenney can’t legally kick that can down the road any further. While only Kenney has the authority to sign off on and allow Jean to run under the UCP banner, it would be catastrophic if Kenney refused to sign now.
Jean didn’t even stay in Fort McMurray long enough for the nomination results to be publicly announced on Sunday night. He is kicking off a province-wide tour and is gunning for Kenney’s job in an unofficial leadership race. Jean is no slouch in political organization himself and he will be working on ensuring that Kenney does not win the confidence of the party at the leadership review convention expected to be held on April 9, after Kenney’s allies on the party’s board rejected a grassroots recall by 22 constituency associations without much in the way of due process.
Wildrose Independence Party (WIP) leader Paul Hinman announced his intention to run in the Fort McMurray-Lac La Biche by-election. While the WIP polls with semi-respectable strength, it’s still chronically underfunded and under-organized. Still, they could become a spoiler. Hinman won an upset victory against the Progressive Conservatives in Cardston-Taber-Warner in 2004 and did it again in Calgary-Glenmore in a 2009 by-election. Hinman is a tireless campaigner and while he may be unlikely to win in Fort McMurray, he will be sure to take a bite out of the UCP’s support. If either Hinman or the NDP takes the seat, it will remove Jean as a problem for Kenney, but highlight a larger problem of the UCP being unable to retain safe conservative seats.
In fact, Kenney would almost certainly prefer an NDP win in this seat. However embarrassing it would be to lose a safe seat in the heart of the oil patch to his leftist rival, it would be much less unsettling to his leadership than Jean sitting across the caucus table from him.
There just isn’t a good scenario to be found for Kenney in looking at the current political landscape. Even if Kenney manages to wrangle a strong show of support for himself in the spring leadership review, he still has members of his own caucus in open revolt against him.
Assuming Jean wins his seat, he will be openly working to pull caucus members to his side in an effort to pull Kenney from power. Don’t forget, both Ed Stelmach and Alison Redford had strong support numbers in leadership reviews before they found themselves forced to step down. If a leader loses caucus support, his or her days are numbered.
It would be foolish to write Kenney off at this point. While his situation is dire, he still remains one of the most skilled and experienced politicians in Canada. He may have a rabbit to pull out of his hat yet.
Time is running out for new tricks though and it’s hard to imagine what he could try next.
Cory Morgan is Assistant Opinion & Broadcast Editor for the Western Standard
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