Jim Prentice: does he plan to stay in the premier's office?

Stephen Harper has been prime minister since 2006. If this fall's federal election doesn't go well for his party, Harper's time as Conservative leader could come to an abrupt end early next year. That would kick off a leadership race, and some think that might be too tempting a prospect for Jim Prentice to pass up.

Some say early election call would be a strong sign that his federal aspirations are still in play

Is the opportunity of a federal Conservative leadership race too tempting for Prentice to pass up? (Jason Franson/Canadian Press)

It's seems a certainty to many at this point - there will be a spring election in Alberta.

Two former PC cabinet ministers are already gone, about a dozen Tories have said they aren't running again and the party is hurriedly acclaiming nominees or rushing candidates into run-off votes.  

"The opposition has been crushed. How much more can you crush it?"- Joe Anglin

Premier Jim Prentice says Alberta's fiscal situation is dire, with a $7-billion revenue hole left where royalty dollars used to be, back when oil was selling for twice the price it is now.

Prentice has done everything but confirm that he will drop the writ in the weeks to come, saying this year's budget will be such a monumental shift from recent years that he needs a mandate to do what must be done.  

But some believe there's more at play.

Stephen Harper has been prime minister since 2006. But if this fall's federal election doesn't go well for his party, his time as Conservative leader could come to an abrupt end early next year. That would kick off a leadership race.

And some political observers think that race could be too tempting a prospect for Prentice to pass up.

It's a theory

Some liken it to a dark conspiracy theory, like something ripped from the script of House of Cards.

Robert Murray of the Frontier Centre says Prentice could use a successful election in Alberta to impress potential supporters for a federal leadership run. (Frontier Centre)
But Dr. Robert Murray doesn't mince words, barely missing a beat when he lays it out. The vice-president of research at the Frontier Centre and an adjunct professor of political science at the University of Alberta, Murray says Prentice wants an election now to help him wow federal Conservative party members when they seek a new leader.

"He very much needs a clear majority mandate in early 2015 to be able to say that he has a track record and a policy record that he's able to run on for leadership of the federal party."

A spring election would, Murray says, amount to a broken promise. During the leadership campaign, Prentice said he would abide by Alberta's new legislation that says voters are supposed to go to the polls in 2016. Passed into law a little more than three years ago, this would be the first opportunity for that legislation to be tested.

'Opposition has been crushed'

Others believe Prentice wants to strike now because the opposition parties are floundering and most are unlikely to field a full slate of candidates. The Liberals will have an interim leader for the foreseeable future, while the Wildrose is now scrambling to pick a new leader by the end of March.

But Joe Anglin doesn't see that as a motivator. The maverick Independent MLA, who left the Wildrose last fall just before it imploded, believes in Murray's scenario and has been mulling it over himself for some time.

"The one theory is that he just wants to crush the opposition. That's a great theory, except for one problem - the opposition has been crushed. How much more can you crush it?"

Instead, Anglin sees another political advantage to an early election call. "Do it now, have a big massive victory, claim the big massive victory, and whatever point in time that Harper steps down ... by Prentice getting this election out of the way, (he) positions him to make that run."

Some are skeptical

Liberal Laurie Blakeman has represented a downtown Edmonton riding for almost 18 years and plans to run again. She has seen plenty of political manoeuvring in that time, but isn't sure a 2015 election plays into Prentice going federal.

She does agree about the state of all the other parties. "The opposition is in complete disarray and (there are) no signs of it being able to recover in any big hurry."

Independent MLA Joe Anglin says the province's opposition parties are in disarray. (CBC)
Instead, Blakeman thinks an early election will be scheduled so the bad news budget isn't felt by voters before they go to the polls.

In fact, she doesn't think the budget will be unveiled ahead of voting day. "He wants to get re-elected and safely back in place for four years before anybody sees those numbers."

Still, Blakeman has no doubt Prentice would jump at the chance to get back to Ottawa as the head of the federal Conservatives. "It's absolutely mouth-watering and tempting for someone like him. He's in the prime of his life, he's doing really well. You know, all the planets are aligning for him. I'd be surprised if he wasn't considering it."

Question asked, and answered

So, is Prentice considering it? The premier has been asked a number of times. His answer has been fairly consistent - he's focused on his job as premier, there are serious financial difficulties ahead, and everything is on the table and needs to be thoroughly discussed with Albertans.

CBC emailed two direct questions to the premier's office. One asked how interested he would be in a future Conservative leadership race, the other asked if he will run in the next provincial election (the one after the one we're waiting for now).  Here is the statement released by his office:

"I am proud to be the Premier of Alberta. I wake up every day knowing that the people of Alberta have placed a lot of trust in me and that I am the luckiest guy around, because I am in good health and I can lead our province through tough times. If the people of Alberta will have me, I plan to be the premier for a long time."

Some politicians love to do this. Reply to questions with an answer that only makes people want to ask more questions.

The view from Ottawa

Jim Prentice stepped down as an MP and cabinet minister in Ottawa four years ago, taking a job on the senior executive team at CIBC. At the time, he seemed to have put politics behind him.

Then, Alison Redford was elected Alberta premier.  

Skip ahead a few years.

Liberal MLA Laurie Blakeman thinks more short-term concerns are behind the talk of a spring election: she says Prentice is trying to get out ahead of a disappointing provincial budget. (CBC)
Prentice announced his candidacy to lead the Alberta Tories last spring, won the race, and was sworn in as premier on Sept. 15.

To some Ottawa political types, he is now out of sight and out of mind. Most agree there is no heir apparent to Harper, but by sheer proximity to where the PM actually sits, Jason Kenney is seen to have an advantage.

Some reporters on Parliament Hill know Prentice has backers, but few are showing their hands. And yet, a longtime insider with the Reform/Alliance/Conservative parties says Prentice has narrowed the gap on Kenney over the past few months in the minds of some party movers and shakers.

The insider also points out that in a campaign, Prentice could say he had a hand in uniting the right TWICE - taking in the Wildrose floor-crossers before Christmas, and playing a role in the creation of the Canadian Alliance in 2003.

Robert Murray says it's likely that Prentice has talked about his political future with Harper himself, given that the two met in Calgary in December.

"I don't think it's a stretch at all to believe that there's at least some electoral strategy ... and future aspirations being discussed in these meetings as well."

For every action

Joe Anglin remains certain that at least part of Prentice's motivation for an early election is to set himself up for an early exit from the premier's office. He says such a move would be "hypocritical," since it would cost roughly $20 million at a time when Prentice says Alberta has "no money."

Prentice has supporters in Ottawa, but would likely have to overcome Jason Kenney if the premier does decide to jump back into federal politics. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)
But John Soroski sees the prospect much the way Laurie Blakeman does - as an intriguing one, but one that would be hard to buy into 100 per cent. The political science professor at MacEwan University in Edmonton points out there are risks for Prentice if he is seen to be using the Alberta legislature as a stepping stone back to Parliament.

Were Prentice to launch a Conservative Party leadership bid, he would be creating a "national reputation" for himself. Leaving his job as premier so quickly "would cause people to reassess Prentice's integrity, if he was to do such a thing."

Plenty to ponder

The idea that Alberta's premier is interested in leading the federal Conservatives may not vanish. Anglin says the idea has been "chasing him around, and still is."

Blakeman calls the notion "churlish, to go to one level of government and then hop to another one."

Murray is steadfast. "I really fail to believe that he left a prominent position at CIBC after a distinguished career as a federal cabinet minister to simply be premier of Alberta and then retire after that."

Inside Prentice's cabinet, Environment Minister Kyle Fawcett says in a memo that Prentice "seems pretty immersed in the role of premier and committed to the province." But on the subject of a possible Conservative leadership candidacy, Fawcett admits to having "never talked to him about the subject."

Political watchers at the legislature who may be thinking three or four steps ahead (if Harper leaves early, Prentice launches a campaign to replace him, that means ... another Alberta Tory leadership race) should perhaps remember the premier's words, that he plans "to be the premier for a long time."

That may be true. But of late the definition of "a long time" seems to have been getting shorter and shorter in Alberta politics.

Stay tuned.