What will Jason Kenney's outspoken UCP caucus mutineers do should he win the leadership vote?

May 18 is supposed to be the day when the fighting over Premier Jason Kenney's leadership stops. That's the day we will know whether Kenney has survived the United Conservative Party's leadership vote.

Kenney is set to face the leadership vote on May 18

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney will face a leadership vote May 18. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

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.

May 18 is supposed to be the day when the fighting over Alberta Premier Jason Kenney's leadership stops. That's the day we will know whether Kenney has survived the United Conservative Party's leadership vote.

On paper the outcome is simple and binary: either he wins and stays on; or he loses and moves out.

However, the only thing simple is what happens should he lose.

In that event, he has said he'll step aside and open the way for a leadership race to replace him.

But what happens if he wins?

Specifically, what do the dissenting MLAs who are loudly unhappy with Kenney do? Do they bite their tongues and stay in the UCP caucus? Do they continue to rebel against Kenney as Independent MLAs?

For example, what does Airdrie-Cochrane MLA Peter Guthrie do after posting a five-minute Facebook video last week eviscerating Kenney for promoting a "culture of fear" within the party?

What does Chestermere-Rocky View MLA Leela Aheer do after posting a tweet last fall demanding Kenney "Step Down!" and suggesting he was aware of sexual harassment complaints inside government.

What about others who have been openly critical of Kenney's leadership including Airdrie-East MLA Angela Pitt, Red Deer-South MLA Jason Stephan, Bonnyville-Cold Lake-St. Paul MLA Dave Hanson and, of course, Kenney's current nemesis and former leadership rival, Fort McMurray-Lac La Biche MLA Brian Jean?

In a brief Legislature hallway conversation, Guthrie told me, "We'll have to wait and see."

Jason Kenney is a professional politician and he now knows in his heart that he has to resign and he has to do that for the good of the province.- Brian Jean

Aheer simply refused to engage with me in the hallway, saying she was too busy to talk. Others have studiously refused to return my calls and/or emails.

Hanson, though, told me bluntly, "I don't think he will win." 

Jean was more adamant. "He cannot get a survivable number," said Jean. "Jason Kenney is a professional politician and he now knows in his heart that he has to resign and he has to do that for the good of the province."

It's perfectly understandable why anti-Kenney MLAs don't want to talk about the possibility of Kenney winning or what their plans will be under that scenario.

To even admit Kenney could possibly win the vote undermines their argument that he has lost the support of the party.

To say they would continue to attack Kenney should he win on May 18 means they would have to either accuse the party executive of running an incompetent leadership vote that cannot be respected or admit they are defying a leader who won a legitimate vote.

Either case would see them booted from caucus — and would allow the party to choose new UCP candidates to replace the mutineers.

They'd become lame duck politicians who would either face the daunting task of running as independent candidates or one day joining a fringe party, such as the Wildrose Independence Party. Or simply fade into political obscurity.

That would suit Kenney just fine.

When it comes to Kenney's critics, Calgary-Fish Creek MLA Richard Gotfried is a special case. He has walked a tightrope, criticizing Kenney for not living up to his promise of "grassroots democracy" but not calling for Kenney to resign.

Gotfried says he simply wants a vote that will reflect the true feelings of party members, something he is afraid won't happen under the current process where the party executive has arbitrarily changed the rules in Kenney's favour.

"The question at the end of this vote is, 'do we trust the process?' Do we trust that there has not been orchestration, manipulation?" asks Gotfried.

He says the challenge facing the party should Kenney win is reconnecting with Albertans: "We need to earn back trust. We have lost much of the trust of Albertans."

This raises a crucial factor in the vote's outcome should Kenney win. Does it matter how big a victory?

Well, yes, it does.

If Kenney were to achieve his own stated threshold of 50 per cent of the ballots plus one, he'd be facing a badly fractured party and his critics would be emboldened to escalate their attacks.

Even a 60/40 split in his favour would reveal a divided party.

What about 65 per cent or even 70 per cent?

That's when we get into questions about the legitimacy of the vote. There is a tipping point here where the size of a Kenney victory moves from raising questions about a divided party to raising questions about a manipulated vote.

The results on May 18 will not end the bitterness or rancour within the UCP.

But let's turn these questions around and ask what will Kenney do if he wins and still faces continued sniping.

He has already said he expects caucus members to fall in behind him — and, ominously, stated he has been "far too tolerant of public expressions of opposition."

What if they don't?

There are two scenarios currently bouncing off the walls of the Legislature.

The first: Kenney reads the dissenters the riot act and if they continue to resist he has them booted from caucus to wither on the vine as Independent MLAs. However, if all of the rebels were to be kicked out, they could join with former UCP MLAs Drew Barnes and Todd Loewen to form a caucus of eight Independents in the legislature that would qualify for extra funding for office staff and researchers.

Thus Kenney would be faced with a group of well-organized and passionate conservatives grilling him during legislative sessions, including Question Period, not just this year but into the crucial pre-election session next spring. Kenney, mind you, would still have a strong majority with 55 seats and might be willing to endure attacks from his former colleagues by attacking them in kind as political opportunists and sore losers.

The second: Not wanting to face a relentless barrage of embarrassing and awkward attacks from former caucus members inside the legislature, Kenney cuts the current sitting short. He spends the summer campaigning while the UCP chooses Kenney-friendly candidates to replace the dissenters.

And then in the fall he calls a snap election. Yes, we are back into speculation about an early election, something the NDP is taking seriously and is busily preparing for.

Of course, if Kenney loses on May 18, the UCP will kick off a heated and potentially divisive leadership race.

No matter what happens that day, Alberta's already wild politics will just get wilder.

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