Fallout from Brian Jean's byelection victory will be messy for Kenney, political scientists say
'To unify, we need him to go,' Jean said after his Tuesday win
A looming battle between Premier Jason Kenney and newly-elected MLA Brian Jean will sow further divisions within Alberta's deeply divided reigning political party, political scientists say.
Jean's win Tuesday in the Fort McMurray-Lac La Biche byelection is only the first blow to Kenney in what will be an ugly battle for leadership of the United Conservative Party, said Mount Royal University political scientist Lori Williams.
The former Wildrose Party leader's return to the legislature will deepen existing fault lines with the United Conservative Party and embolden Kenney's opponents, Williams said Wednesday.
With a leadership review set for April 9 in Red Deer, Kenney is playing a losing game, she said.
"The people that oppose Jason Kenney are not going to give up, even if they can't successfully challenge him from within," Williams said.
"For the people that are really strongly opposed — the ones that are angry — they're just going to keep trying either to get Jason Kenney out as leader or split from the party."
Jean easily won the byelection Tuesday. With all polls reporting, 63.6 per cent of voters chose the UCP candidate over his challengers.
Now his greatest enemy is in his own caucus.- Lisa Young
Kenney congratulated Jean on Twitter Tuesday but has not made any other comments about his rival's byelection win.
The vote was a lose-lose situation for the premier, said Lisa Young, a political scientist at the University of Calgary.
"There was really no good outcome for Jason Kenney," Young said. "Now his greatest enemy is in his own caucus.
"But if the NDP had won, it would have been seen as a huge sign that his party was in trouble and that would have hurt him in the upcoming leadership review."
For Jean, the campaign was always a means to oust Kenney.
Jean and Kenney founded the UCP together in 2017 as a merger of the Wildrose Party and the Progressive Association of Alberta, but Jean lost the leadership to Kenney in a vote stained by accusations of secret deals, colluding candidates and fraud.
Jean eventually quit as an MLA, but announced in November he was coming out of political retirement.
If Kenney remains as leader, the UCP and its place at the top of Alberta's political ladder will be in jeopardy, Jean said after his win Tuesday night.
"Jason, I hope you see what's coming and I hope you do the right thing," Jean said.
"The right thing is to resign while the party is still together. The party needs to stay together and to unify, we need him to go."
With the byelection over, opposing factions within the UCP are now focused on getting supporters to the ballot box next month for Kenney's leadership review.
Only party members will be eligible to vote at the special general meeting in Red Deer on April 9 but the cutoff to register is Saturday.
As of Tuesday, about 8,000 members had registered but that number is expected to surge.
In an interview Wednesday, Jean urged his supporters to register immediately to ensure a "clear message" is delivered to Kenney about the "bad job" he's been doing.
All Kenney needs to survive is a simple 50 per cent-plus-one majority. He has said he will be content to remain leader if that is all he gets.
Williams said even a winning vote will be a losing scenario for Kenney. Anger within caucus is likely to grow and challenges to his leadership will continue, she said.
"I don't see what win is possible for him," Williams said. "This is the never-ending story."
'One of them is going to go'
The question now becomes what happens when Jean joins the UCP caucus.
Last May, MLAs Drew Barnes and Todd Loewen were kicked out of the UCP caucus after criticizing Kenney and his COVID-19 policies.
In July, Chestermere-Rocky View MLA Leela Aheer was dropped from cabinet after criticizing Kenney for breaking COVID-19 restrictions during a rooftop lunch outside his temporary penthouse office.
"The day after the leadership review, I can't imagine a situation where both Kenney and Jean are in the caucus," said Duane Bratt, a political science professor at Mount Royal University.
"One of them is going to go. It's just unsustainable.
"If Kenney survives the leadership review, I think he's going to take steps to remove Jean from from caucus."
You wonder if the merger was a good idea or whether these are simply two incompatible groups in a forced marriage.Duane Bratt
Bratt said he no longer expects Kenney to survive the leadership vote but no matter the outcome, the political fallout will be messy.
Five years after its creation, the party appears split by irreconcilable differences, Bratt said. He said the divisions will continue to plague the caucus and whoever leads the party.
"It's a new party, it was cobbled together because of the NDP, the desire to remove the NDP from power … but that glue didn't last very long.
"Now, there may be glue to remove Jason Kenney, but once he's removed you still have those cleavages and divisions.
"You wonder if the merger was a good idea or whether these are simply two incompatible groups in a forced marriage."
With files from The Canadian Press