Brian Jean's byelection win sets the stage for showdown with Alberta Premier Jason Kenney

Brian Jean who won’t be sworn in as an MLA until April 5 and thus will be unable to be a thorn in Jason Kenney’s UCP caucus for another three weeks. But they’ll be battling behind the scenes by proxy if not actually in the streets.

Jean's overwhelming victory adds to an already twisted political landscape in Alberta, writes Graham Thomson

Brian Jean easily won the Fort McMurray-Lac La Biche byelection Tuesday with 63.6 per cent of the vote. (CBC)

This column is an opinion from Graham Thomson, an award-winning journalist who has covered Alberta politics for more than 30 years. For more information about CBC's Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

The melodrama that is Alberta politics has just become a street brawl.

And newly elected MLA Brian Jean is bringing his brass knuckles — along with almost five years' worth of anger and resentment.

For Jean, winning the Fort McMurray-Lac La Biche byelection Tuesday night was not a means in itself but a means to an end. Namely, ending the career of Premier Jason Kenney.

It is a bizarre twist in an already twisted political landscape where Alberta's premier, once the darling of Conservatives across Canada, has been the most disliked provincial leader in the country for much of the past two years.

And now we have a UCP candidate who handily won a byelection on a campaign promise to overthrow the leader of the UCP.

And, as if it was part of this crazy plot, the UCP has organized a special general meeting in Red Deer on April 9 where party members will vote on Kenney's leadership.

"On April 9th we have a chance to reinvigorate our party and be competitive in the next election and if Jason Kenney is still there, we won't be," declared Jean Tuesday night.

"We need him to go."

Jean and now premier Jason Kenney struck a deal in 2017 to unite the Wildrose Party and the Alberta Progressive Conservatives. (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press)

Winning the byelection was the easy part. Jean won 63.6 per cent of the vote.

The NDP was a distant second and the Wildrose Independence Party came third, which wasn't such a bad result given the candidate, party leader Paul Hinman, parachuted himself into the riding.

For Jean, now comes the heavy lifting and it will be akin to piggybacking an elephant up a mountain.

As he told his supporters Tuesday night, the next big day is this Saturday.

That's the cutoff for people to join the UCP and be eligible to vote on April 9.

There will be a massive push over the next few days by supporters and opponents of Kenney to sign up new UCP members.

But this is not simply Jean versus Kenney.

Jean is going up against a premier who is not afraid to pull every lever of governmental power to survive the leadership review, even going so far as to hold a recent string of announcements in Red Deer to promise, among other things, $1.8 billion for a new local hospital.

The UCP leadership vote is, of course, open to members across the province but it surely cannot hurt Kenney's case to soften the hearts of the good people of Red Deer who live just down the street from the convention centre where his fate will be decided. 

He also sent his chief of staff, Pam Livingston, on a leave of absence to lead a team to make sure he survives the leadership vote.

This will not be a measure of Kenney's popularity.

If that was the case, he'd be gone by sunrise on April 10.

WATCH | Jason Kenney's political nemesis wins byelection:

Kenney rival Brian Jean stages political comeback

1 year ago
Duration 1:57
Alberta Premier Jason Kenney’s former rival Brian Jean has made a political comeback with a byelection win. A return that could make Kenney’s leadership review even more challenging.

This is all about getting out the vote.

It doesn't matter how unpopular Kenney is with many Albertans.

He doesn't need the one million votes the UCP got in the 2019 election or even a measly 10 per cent of that.

Right now, about 8,000 people are registered for the vote. If that number holds true, for example, Kenney needs only get 4,001 votes to survive on April 9.

Even though Kenney's political enemies run far and deep in Alberta, they are not particularly well organized.

They're hoping anger will drive disgruntled party members to the Red Deer vote. Kenney's team, on the other hand, will likely be using buses.

Jean is channelling the anger of a large number of conservative-minded voters who believe Kenney trampled their freedoms during the pandemic with COVID-related restrictions and mandates.

They are eagerly waiting for a chance to vote Kenney out as UCP leader at the Red Deer meeting.

But Jean's anger runs deeper and longer than a pandemic, going all the way back to Oct. 28, 2017, when he lost the UCP's bitterly contested leadership race to Kenney.

Jean resigned his seat in March of 2018 and slipped into relative obscurity.

In 2018, Jean lost the UCP's bitterly contested leadership race to Kenney. Jean later resigned his seat and slipped into relative obscurity. That ended on Tuesday night when he won the byelection. (Terry Reith/CBC )

But when Kenney's star began to fall precipitously during the pandemic, Jean started popping up on social media and in op-eds taking shots at his political nemesis.

Jean could smell blood.

He could also sense an opportunity last August when UCP MLA Laila Goodridge suddenly quit her seat to run, successfully, as the Conservative candidate in last September's federal election.

Not only did Goodridge's actions trigger a provincial byelection, the contest would be held in Jean's home riding that he had represented both as an MP and MLA.

Kenney, who likes to think of himself as a skilled tactician, totally miscalculated events.

He failed to see Jean as a threat and he failed to have Jean defeated at the UCP's nomination contest in December.

Kenney will likely do his best to ignore or downplay Jean who won't be sworn in as an MLA until April 5 and thus will be unable to be a thorn in Kenney's caucus for another three weeks.

But they'll be battling behind the scenes by proxy if not actually in the streets.

As Jean said by way of understatement Tuesday, "it's going to be an exciting time."

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Graham Thomson

Freelance contributor

Graham Thomson is an award-winning journalist who has covered Alberta politics for more than 30 years, much of it as an outspoken columnist for the Edmonton Journal. Nowadays you can find his thoughts and analysis on provincial politics Fridays at cbc.ca/edmonton, on CBC Edmonton Television News, during Radio Active on CBC Radio One (93.9FM/740AM) and on Twitter at @gthomsonink.