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COLUMN: UCP swamped with subpar leadership hopefuls

'The problem is, eventually someone has to be the boss and, given the internal frictions that have bedeviled the current leader, whoever accepts that poisoned chalice will almost certainly witness an immediate drop in popular support.'
Nelson Chris web
Columnist Chris Nelson

Alberta politics has always been a little bit peculiar, but we’re now heavily ensconced in the twilight zone.

The most popular politician in the province now goes by the name Anybody But Kenney, as the current premier’s United Conservative Party has suddenly rebounded mightily in the opinion polls following his decision to step down after getting a lukewarm-at-best show of support from members in a recent leadership vote.

Hey, let’s face it, a faceless, nameless leader without a single policy or semblance of platform might indeed be the only person capable of appealing to all those various factions that have torn asunder any semblance of common purpose in a party that relentlessly makes a mockery of its united designation.

The problem is, eventually someone has to be the boss and, given the internal frictions that have bedeviled the current leader, whoever accepts that poisoned chalice will almost certainly witness an immediate drop in popular support.

That’s quite the dilemma.

OK, so let’s imagine former Wildrose leader Brian Jean eventually gets the nod. Considering he’s been agitating against Jason Kenney almost since losing the UCP leadership vote nearly five years ago, it’s hardly likely supporters of the current premier will welcome him with wide open arms and beatific smiles.

Anyhow, could any politician based in Fort McMurray sway enough actual voters in the two major urban areas to get the party elected in next spring’s provincial election? Realistically, Edmonton is already a virtual write-off to the New Democrats, so it’ll be Calgary that holds the key – a city still harboring a fair few Kenney loyalists.

Then there’s Danielle Smith, another former Wild Rose leader, who certainly possesses more charisma and big city appeal than Jean. But she also possesses the unfortunate reputation brought upon herself in abandoning her own party and crossing the legislative floor in 2014, to join the then PC government under Jim Prentice. That move remains super-glued in some folks’ memories.

Travis Toews is also running, after stepping down as Finance Minister. Well, considering the sneaky tax grab he instigated by freezing personal tax brackets back in 2019 he’s on thin ice. With inflation running at almost seven per cent that move is costing everyone a big chunk of money, something any opponent in this race will undoubtedly bring up.

Todd Loewen, a fellow booted out of the UCP caucus last year after his harsh criticism of Kenney, is also running. But he’s essentially a poor man’s Brian Jean in party and voter appeal as both exude an angry, outsider demeanor and neither possessing the popularity in those vital areas where most electoral seats reside. Still, he’ll enjoy himself throwing verbal hand grenades at the other candidates.

The fifth would-be premier, Amisk mayor Bill Rock, has as much chance of winning as a three-legged donkey in the Kentucky Derby. But hey, that’s democracy for you.

Of course, there will be other hats thrown into this three-ring circus. A few Alberta MPs might be tempted, although Kenney’s previous experience in Ottawa didn’t help much in the long run, with some party faithful bitterly resenting that federal connection.

All those eventually on the list will undoubtedly wax lyrical about party unity but such inclusive talk so often proves cheap when it comes to Alberta’s conservatives.

Yes, we’re in the twilight zone for sure.

Most Albertans remain conservative by nature, the economy likely will be red-hot by election time, booming energy revenues will allow for spending, saving and a budget in surplus. Meanwhile COVID should be a distant, nasty memory.

It’s perfectly set up for a government seeking re-election. Except for one tiny detail. They must pick a leader.

Chris Nelson is a long-time journalist. His columns on Alberta politics run monthly in the St. Albert Gazette.