The fragility of a 'big tent' conservative party

The conservative movement in Canada, federally and provincially, has a history of splitting into different political parties and then reuniting. The UCP is just the latest example.

There is a long history of right-wing parties splintering and merging in Canada

The United Conservative Party is the most recent example of a long history of splintering and reuniting in western Canadian conservative parties. (Amber Bracken/The Canadian Press)

During the 2016 Calgary Stampede, former federal Conservative cabinet minister Jason Kenney presented an audacious plan to reunite Alberta's provincial conservatives.

Step 1 was for Kenney to win the leadership of the Alberta Progressive Conservative Party (PCs). Step 2 was to negotiate a merger agreement between the PCs and the Wildrose Party. Step 3 was for the merger agreement to be ratified by the grassroots members of both parties. Step 4 was for Kenney to win the leadership of the new merged party. Step 5 was for this new merged party to win the 2019 election and for Kenney to become premier of Alberta.

All five of these steps occurred. Today, the United Conservative Party (UCP) forms the government of Alberta, and Kenney is premier.

Historical trend

The successful creation of the UCP is another example in the historical trend of conservative parties in Canada that is replete with cycles of internal fracturing, which are then followed by periods of cohesion and stability.

The conservative movement in Canada, federally and provincially, has a history of splitting into different political parties and then reuniting, thus repeating the cycle.

This occurs at a frequency not shared by other parties of different ideological perspectives.

For example, at the national level, the various iterations of conservative vehicles, from Liberal-Conservative, to National Conservative, to Unionist, to Conservative, to Progressive Conservative, to the Reform Party, to the Canadian Reform Conservative Alliance, to the Canadian Alliance, to today's Conservative Party of Canada, have all contended with stretches of internal strife and threats of splintering.

At the provincial level, especially in Western Canada, a similar dynamic has taken place.

The Saskatchewan Party was a merger of the Progressive Conservatives and Liberals. The BC Liberal Party was formed by members of the Liberal, Progressive Conservative, and Social Credit parties.

In Alberta, Social Credit premier E.C. Manning attempted a merger with the Progressive Conservatives in 1966. Later, there was the formation of the Wildrose Party in 2008, the mass floor-crossing from Wildrose to PC in 2014, and the creation of the UCP in 2017.

All bear out our hypothesis that these processes are peculiar to right-of-centre parties.

When Alberta PC premier Jim Prentice convinced Wildrose Party leader Danielle Smith and eight of her colleagues to cross the floor, it was supposed to have been a full-scale merger, but it looked more like a backroom deal. (Jason Franson/Canadian Press)

Our research on this political phenomenon has led us to two variables that identify and explain this process of splintering and merging. The first one focuses on the timing for splintering/merging, and the second one focuses on their rationale.

First, splintering occurs when a conservative party is in power.

In the 1984 election, the federal PCs were unified and won an overwhelming majority government under Brian Mulroney. However, by the latter stages of their first term in office, the upstart, western-based, right- populist Reform Party broke away from the PCs.

It is significant that such splintering among conservative parties did not occur during the long period of Liberal rule (1963-1984), but only when the PCs finally broke through and won a majority government.

Brian Mulroney and his wife Mila walk through placard waving supporters at the PC leadership convention in June 1983. Mulroney went on to win the federal election the next year, ending 21 years of almost uninterrupted Liberal rule. (The Canadian Press)

Similarly, and years later, the Wildrose Party broke away from the PCs in Alberta during the latter's 40-four-year dynasty.

On the other hand, mergers don't work so well under those conditions.

Whenever one conservative party is in power, a merger proposal may look to the smaller party as a co-opting scheme by offering them cabinet seats and other perks of power. This can be seen though the two failed attempts at conservative party mergers in Alberta.

Premier Manning's 1966 merger proposal between the Social Credit and PCs was rejected by the PCs because they saw it as the means for the Social Credit government to swallow them up before they could beat them at the ballot box. Likewise, the Social Credit caucus defeated the merger proposal because they did not feel a need to merge with a party that held no seats. After all, the Socreds had been in power since 1935, and held 63 out of 65 seats at the time of Manning's plan.

In December 2014, Alberta PC premier Jim Prentice convinced Wildrose leader Danielle Smith and eight of her colleagues to cross the floor and join the PCs. While this was supposed to have been a full-scale merger, it appeared more like a backroom deal, and outraged the Wildrose Party grassroots, as well as five Wildrose MLAs who refused to join the PCs.

When mergers work

More successful mergers tend to occur when both conservative parties are out of power.

The Canadian Alliance merged with the federal PCs only after three straight majority victories for the Liberals.

Provincially, the merger of Alberta's PC party and Wildrose Party in July 2017, culminating in the formation of the UCP, occurred when both were out of power. This occurred just two years after the NDP's upset victory in 2015.

The Saskatchewan Party (created as a result of a 1997 merger between the PCs and Liberals) was done in the midst of an NDP winning streak that saw them form government for 16  years (1991-2007). The desire to push the Liberals or the NDP out of power was the motivation for conservative mergers.

The second variable is ideology, whereby the splintering of conservative parties occurs for ideological and/or policy-driven reasons.

All political parties combine ideological principles with a pragmatic streak that pressures it to moderate policies in order to achieve electoral success. This tension between principle and pragmatism plays itself out in the splinter/merger process.

Splintering can occur for ideological reasons, as principled conservatives break away from the more pragmatic conservatives who had formed government, or — and this appears especially pertinent these days — when friction arises between the concerns of social conservatives and their more moderate colleagues.

Preston Manning in 1991. The former leader of the Reform Party says internal turmoil can be painful, but it does allow the conservative movement to regroup, rethink, refresh and re-emerge. (Ron Polingé/The Canadian Press)

Federal Progressive Conservatives had been elected for years in Western Canada, and when they finally took power nationally in 1984, the West was hoping for a party that would address the government's growing budgetary deficit/debt, put an end to the social engineering of the Liberal party, and address constitutional issues through a western lens (instead of being Quebec-centric).

It turned out that, on all of these grounds, western conservatives felt betrayed by the Mulroney PCs. The trigger was the controversial October 1986 decision to award the CF-18 maintenance contract to Canadair of Quebec over a much lower bid from Bristol Aerospace in Winnipeg.

For these and other reasons, the Reform Party emerged as a populist-driven, conservative splinter party to the federal PCs in 1987. Years later in Alberta, what allowed the Wildrose Party to rapidly grow into an electoral contender was when PC premier Ed Stelmach announced increases to oil and gas royalties.

Defeat is a driver

The tension between principle and pragmatism works the other way when both conservative parties are out of power. Party mergers occur when the desire to form a government either forces bickering factions to co-operate, or at least to put aside those differences if electoral success appears possible.

Successive electoral defeats were the driver for the formation of the CPC (merger between Reform-Alliance and PCs), Alberta's UCP (merger between Wildrose and PCs), the Saskatchewan Party (merger between PCs and Liberals), and the emergence of the BC Liberal Party as the vehicle for conservatism (containing members from the Liberals, PCs and Social Credit).

The policy differences between these parties, which were sometimes quite substantial, especially in the area of social policy, were papered over by the desire to defeat the Liberals (federally) and the NDP (Alberta, Saskatchewan, and B.C.).

Our research has determined that an inherent feature of conservative party politics in Western Canada is the process of continual splintering and merging.

The extent of this internal turmoil may be "painful for those involved," as Preston Manning put it, but it does allow the conservative movement to regroup, rethink, refresh, and re-emerge as new, and, ideally, potent parties.

Alberta's new UCP government, which is only a few months past winning a major electoral victory, may soon have to face this fact of conservative party life.

This column is an opinion. For more information about our commentary section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.


Duane Bratt and Bruce Foster (recently retired) are both political scientists at Mount Royal University in Calgary.