Thursday was another crazy day in Alberta politics. Shortly after midnight, United Conservative Party caucus chair Todd Loewen posted a scathing resignation letter to the rest of the caucus and posted it on Facebook. Letter from Loewen presented a series of complaints about certain policies of Prime Minister Jason Kenney and his leadership style. He argued that the UCP (the result of the merger of the former Progressive Conservative and Wildrose parties) was formed around “shared principles, integrity and common sense approaches to governing”, not “blind loyalty.” towards a man ”. He concluded by asking that Kenney resign as Prime Minister.
A regular UCP caucus meeting scheduled for Thursday morning had been canceled the day before. However, an emergency caucus meeting was quickly postponed until later in the day, in which Loewen and Drew Barnes (another Kenney critic in the UCP caucus) were kicked out of the party.
The length of the meeting (seven hours), the fact that a confidential meeting was tweeted live by the Western Standard (an online media organization founded by Derek Fildebrandt, a former MP for Wildrose who was prevented from joining the UCP), the lack of a secret ballot and the failure to disclose the results is strong evidence that the decision to expel Loewen and Barnes was quite contentious.
There are an unknown number of other UCP MPs who lack confidence in Kenney. In the coming days, some of them may voluntarily withdraw from caucus and sit as independents.
Even though Kenney quelled this caucus revolt, at least temporarily, he was badly hurt by the process.
Not only did he need to wield political capital to quell the insurgency, but he had to spend a day addressing the internal politics of the PCU in the midst of a health pandemic where Alberta is the most affected country.
Thursday was an incredible revival of April 2019, when Kenney, as he often touts it, won “the greatest democratic term in Alberta history.”
So what went wrong? Why does Jason Kenney, the architect of the UCP formation, need to face a revolt from the party caucus he built?
There are three interrelated causes: restrictions on COVID-19; declining ballot numbers; and structural fault lines within the Alberta Conservative movement.
COVID restrictions play a role
On COVID-19 restrictions, Kenney often comes across as a man caught between those who want tighter restrictions implemented faster and those who strongly resist restrictions. However, this representation is incorrect.
A majority of Albertans called for tighter restrictions, but the small minority who resisted them were among the Base UCP.
Although Loewen’s letter does not refer to COVID-19, he was among 16 UCP rural backbenchers who signed a public letter beginning of April 2021 it says, “After 13 arduous months of public health restrictions related to COVID-19, we do not support the additional restrictions imposed on Albertans.”
COVID-19 has exposed some of the cracks within the PCU, particularly a rural-urban divide.
As investigator Janet Brown documented for the CBC, the Kenney poll numbers have been going down for two years.
As the graph below shows, if an election were to take place today, Rachel Notley’s NDP would form a majority government.
You don’t see caucus revolts against a popular prime minister. Instead, they happen when an unpopular prime minister can cause you to lose your seat. That was the fate of former Conservative Party premiers of Alberta, Ed Stelmach and Alison Redford, who were shunned by caucus due to the low number of public opinion polls.
It is also obvious that the Conservatives in Alberta may be ungovernable.
As I wrote in the past with my colleague Bruce Foster, there is a history of the Alberta Conservative parties (federal and provincial level) bursting and melting.
The UCP currently contains many fault lines: previous party affiliation (PC versus Wildrose), ideology (center-right versus far-right), forms of conservatism (economic conservatives versus social conservatives), geographic (rural versus urban), government (cabinet versus backbench) and structure (political staff of the prime minister versus elected deputies). These divisions often overlap, which exacerbates tensions within the party.
Kenney succeeded in quelling this caucus revolt. It is also possible that eliminating two malcontents, as well as sending a strong message to other MPs, that dissent in his leadership will no longer be tolerated, will stop the internal discontent.
However, until the COVID-19 pandemic is brought under control, he improves his polls and mitigates internal cracks within the UCP, Kenney will remain vulnerable to further caucus uprisings.
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