Alberta's Jason Kenney put down a caucus revolt. But he got hurt in the process

Until the COVID-19 pandemic has been brought under control and Jason Kenney improves his polling and mitigates the internal fissures within the United Conservative Party, the Alberta premier will remain susceptible to further caucus revolts, says political scientist Duane Bratt.

Alberta's United Conservative Party may be ungovernable, says political scientist Duane Bratt

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney walks through a crowd at the provincial legislature in Edmonton. Two members of his UCP caucus were expelled this week over allegations they were undermining his leadership. (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press)

This column is an opinion from Duane Bratt, a political scientist at Mount Royal University in Calgary. For more information about CBC's Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

Thursday was another wild day in Alberta politics. Shortly after midnight, United Conservative Party caucus chair Todd Loewen released a scathing letter of resignation to the rest of the caucus and posted it on Facebook.

Loewen's letter laid out a series of complaints about some of Premier Jason Kenney's policies and his leadership style. It argued that the UCP (a result of the merger of the old Progressive Conservative and Wildrose parties) was formed around "shared principles, integrity, and common-sense approaches to governing," not "blind loyalty to one man." It concluded by requesting that Kenney resign as premier. 

A regular UCP caucus meeting scheduled for Thursday morning had been cancelled the day before. However, an emergency caucus meeting was quickly rescheduled for later in the day at which both Loewen and Drew Barnes (another Kenney critic within the UCP caucus) were expelled from the party.

The length of the meeting (seven hours), the fact that a confidential meeting was live tweeted by the Western Standard (an online media organization founded by Derek Fildebrandt, an ex-Wildrose MLA who was prevented from joining the UCP), the absence of a secret ballot, and a failure to release the results, are strong evidence that the decision to expel Loewen and Barnes was quite contentious.

There are an unknown number of other UCP MLAs who lack confidence in Kenney. In the coming days, some of them may voluntarily withdraw from caucus and sit as independents.

Alberta MLAs Todd Loewen, left, and Drew Barnes were expelled from the UCP caucus over allegations they divided the party and undermined government leadership. (Government of Alberta)

Even though Kenney put down this caucus revolt, at least temporarily, he was badly wounded by the process.

Not only did he need to exert political capital putting down the insurgency, but he had to spend a day addressing internal UCP politics in the midst of a health pandemic where Alberta is the worst-hit province in the country.

Thursday was an incredible comedown from April 2019, when Kenney, as he frequently boasts, won the "largest democratic mandate in Alberta's history."

So, what has gone wrong? Why did Jason Kenney, the architect of the formation of the UCP, need to confront a caucus revolt from the party that he built?

There are three interrelated causes: COVID-19 restrictions; dropping poll numbers; and the structural fault lines within Alberta's conservative movement. 

COVID restrictions play role

On COVID-19 restrictions, Kenney often portrays himself as a man stuck between those who want tighter restrictions implemented more quickly and those who strongly resist restrictions. However, this depiction is incorrect.

A majority of Albertans sought tougher restrictions, but the small minority who resisted them were part of the UCP base.

Although Loewen's letter did not reference COVID-19, he was among the 16 rural backbench UCP MLAs who signed a public letter in early April 2021 that said, "After 13 painstaking months of COVID-19 public health restrictions, we do not support the additional restrictions imposed on Albertans."

COVID-19 has revealed some of the fissures within the UCP, especially a rural-urban divide.

As pollster Janet Brown has documented for the CBC, Kenney's poll numbers have been on a downward slide for two years.

As the chart below shows, if an election were held today, Rachel Notley's NDP would form a majority government.

You do not see caucus revolts against a popular premier. Instead, they occur when an unpopular premier might cause you to lose your seat. This was the fate of previous Alberta PC Premiers Ed Stelmach and Alison Redford, who were pushed out by caucus because of low public opinion polling numbers.

It is also apparent that Alberta's conservatives may be ungovernable.

As I have written in the past with my colleague Bruce Foster, there is a history of Alberta conservative parties (both federally and provincially) splintering and merging.

The UCP currently contains numerous fault lines: previous party affiliation (PC versus Wildrose), ideology (centre-right versus far-right), forms of conservatism (economic conservatives versus social conservatives), geographic (rural versus urban), government (cabinet versus backbench), and structure (premier's political staff versus elected MLAs). These cleavages often overlap, which exacerbates the tensions within the party.

Kenney successfully put down this caucus revolt. It is also possible that removing two malcontents, as well as sending a strong message to other MLAs that dissent to his leadership will no longer be tolerated, will stop the internal discontent. 

However, until the COVID-19 pandemic has been brought under control, he improves his polling, and mitigates the internal fissures within the UCP, Kenney will remain susceptible to further caucus revolts.

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Duane Bratt

Freelance contributor

Duane Bratt is a political scientist at Mount Royal University in Calgary.