Brian Jean fired a shot across the bow of Jason Kenney's unite-the-right campaign Thursday, saying he would be willing to step aside as Wildrose leader to seek the leadership of a new, united conservative party.
Jean said bringing Alberta's two right-wing parties together under a single banner would give conservatives in the province the best chance winning the next election, scheduled for 2019.
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The man who has led the Wildrose since March 2015 made the announcement in a group email sent to party members and in a video posted on the party website.
He said his envisioned a united party would be viable only if it was ruled by the grassroots and recognized all members of the Wildrose and Progressive Conservative parties as equals.
'Let me be clear on this point — I plan to be Alberta's next premier.' - Brian Jean
"Let me be clear on this point — I plan to be Alberta's next premier," Jean said. "If our members approve a unity agreement with the PC party, I am prepared to stand down as leader of the Wildrose and to seek the leadership of our single, principled, conservative party in a race to be conducted this summer.
"We must remember that the members will decide the name for Alberta's conservative movement," he said. "And most importantly, time is of the essence."
Kenney, who has made merging the two parties a key part of his bid to lead the PCs, was quick to respond to Jean's announcement.
"I'm delighted to hear my friend Brian Jean's statement today, clearly opening the door to the unity that we've been advocating for the past half year," Kenney told reporters immediately after Jean's announcement.
"I've said from the beginning that I hope Brian would run for that leadership. I hope other Albertans will, too."
Kenney said that if he wins the PC leadership on March 18, he would sit down with Jean immediately to start working out the details of a merger.
Shift in thinking
Jean's announcement seemed to herald a shift in his thinking on the issue. In October, at the Wildrose annual general meeting in Red Deer, he rejected talk of a union with the PCs.
Taking aiming at the PC party, Jean said Albertans elected the NDP in May 2015 because many voters "soundly rejected those who put personal ambition ahead of principles."
Kenney said he was optimistic that Jean would embrace the idea of unity. Jean's announcement abates any confusion around whether the Wildrose could get on board, he said.
"I think it makes it absolutely clear, what I've believed from the beginning, that Brian would hear from grassroots Albertans about the demand for unity," Kenney said. "I think his decision today reflects the overwhelming consensus in his party."
Starke seeks co-operation
In the hours before Jean's announcement, PC leadership candidate Richard Starke also spoke out in support of more unity amongst Alberta's right-wing parties.
But Starke wants to keep them separate and criticized Kenney's push for a merger.
"I've stated unequivocally throughout this campaign that the five-point unity scheme will not work," Starke said. "It will result in a second NDP term in office."
Starke said he has not talked to the Wildrose about working together. He was also vague about how the Wildrose and the PCs would do so.
He said it would happen once the new PC leader was chosen.
Starke said he expects the Wildrose to climb onboard.
"This plan respects their party just like it respects our party," he said, again, without getting into the specifics of the plan.
In a warning to his own party members, Jean said conservative-minded voters can't afford to risk being caught off guard by an early election call.
"[Premier] Rachel Notley could very well call such an election if she sees any vulnerability in Alberta's conservative movement," Jean said. "Our party's survival has been put at risk by that type of cynical and jaded politics in the past, and I'm not willing to take that chance with Alberta's future.
"We cannot give Rachel Notley and the NDP a free pass. The leader of a consolidated party must be in place and ready to oppose the NDP's damaging legislative agenda, this fall."
Jean was elected Wildrose leader in March 2015, six weeks before the provincial election and only months after former leader Danielle Smith and eight party MLAs defected to the then-ruling Progressive Conservative party.
On May 5, Notley won a decisive victory and swept aside a Tory dynasty that had ruled the province for more than four decades.