by Paul Wells
Jason Kenney wouldn’t tell me when we exchanged emails on Wednesday whether he’s going to leave federal politics to unite Alberta’s conservative forces. I suspect he doesn’t know yet. He did say he’s “getting very close to a decision.”
Here are the options facing the Conservative MP for Calgary Midnapore. He could stay in federal politics and remain a hard-working opposition MP. He could run to replace Stephen Harper as the federal party’s leader. That was what most people, including close friends of the former immigration minister, assumed until a few weeks ago he would do.
Or he could go home to Alberta, try to win the Progressive Conservative leadership vacated by his former federal cabinet colleague Jim Prentice, and then try to unite Alberta PCs with the Wildrose Party – over, it seems, the objections of his former federal Conservative caucus colleague, Brian Jean. And then try to defeat the province’s NDP premier, Rachel Notley, in the next election.
Notice I said “try,” three times. None of these steps is a slam dunk. Beating Notley might be the easiest part. Alberta’s first NDP government has struggled with the same bundle of lousy news that allowed Notley to unseat the PCs in the first place: chronic low oil prices and rising unemployment. Her NDP has been behind Wildrose in polls all year, and in one poll they fell back to third place behind the PCs.
But I’d be reluctant to bet even on Notley’s political demise. She has three years to turn things around, and Alberta has much more often returned incumbent governments than ejected them after a single term.
Meanwhile, Kenney would have to reunite Alberta’s conservative parties. You could say he has experience, as a senior lieutenant to the guy who managed it at the federal level in 2003, Stephen Harper. The problem is that he was also a senior lieutenant to Stockwell Day, who tried to unite the parties before Harper did. And he was a senior lieutenant to Preston Manning, who tried to do it before Day did. Kenney knows these things fail more often than they succeed.
If for some reason he has forgotten, he could ask Prentice, the white knight swooping in from Ottawa (well, from semi-retirement in Toronto, but close enough) to rally the Alberta right in 2014. It ended badly.
And Prentice had advantages Kenney doesn’t. The Conservative government in which he’d served hadn’t yet lost. The Alberta PCs were the senior partner in any merger talks; in fact they, too, were still in power.
It’s hard to remember now, but Prentice returned to Alberta as a kind of juggernaut, sweeping all before him. He managed to get nine Wildrose MNAs to defect to his party – including the leader, Danielle Smith. This had two main results. First, it awakened PC antibodies against the intruders, and Smith lost the nomination battle to run as a PC candidate. Second, it hardened the resolve of the Wildrose rump against the PCs. The survivors of Prentice’s raid against Wildrose are not likely to look more kindly on a union today than they did only two years ago. None of this amounts to an argument that Kenney is the wrong man for the task.
He’s smart, widely read and travelled, almost comically hardworking, and was a key contributor to Harper’s success, when Harper was successful. Like Harper, he would run near the right end of the leadership spectrum. You could argue that would make him more attractive to Wildrose members after he wins the PC leadership.But it’s debatable whether you can win the leadership these days from the right. Ted Morton, a political scientist turned politician, used to try.
Kenney endorsed Morton when he ran for the Alberta PC leadership in 2006 and finished third. Morton tried again in 2011, without Kenney’s endorsement, finished fourth, and threw his support to the guy who wound up losing to Alison Redford. It’s not exactly a trail blazed in glory.
Politics is often the art of the impossible. In 2002 when Stephen Harper returned to federal politics, not a lot of columnists predicted a decade at 24 Sussex Drive for him. In 1990 it was fashionable in some circles to call Jean ChrÈtien “yesterday’s man.”
If human agency counted for nothing in this business it would be no fun to write about it. But the road to power in Alberta is suddenly trickier than it has been for decades. Surely Jason Kenney, one of the keenest students of politics I’ve met, has noticed this.
Copyright 2016 – Torstar Syndication Services