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After uniting the right in Alberta, now the fight to lead it begins

Maclean's logo Maclean's 2017-05-18 Jason Markusoff
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Related video: United Wildrose, PC party putting Alberta above egos (Provided by Canadian Press)

Brian Jean and Jason Kenney stood beside each other behind bulky lecterns for the first time Thursday, to announce their parties’ tentative deal to create the United Conservative Party, stitching together Kenney’s Progressive Conservative and Jean’s Wildrose tents. The next time we see the navy-suited pair this way, they’ll be in a policy debate for the helm of that party.

A reporter asked, just to be clear, if they’re both running. Kenney, the former federal cabinet minister, answered in the subtly smirking way that invited you to follow his eyes, not his lips: “Actually the agreement says we’re not going to get into a leadership campaign unless or after this is ratified (on July 22). I’m going to defer that question to July 23.” Jean, the former federal backbencher who not only looks like William H. Macy but also embodies his Fargo character’s “aww geez” manner, cut the crap: “Clearly, we’re both running for the leadership of this new party.” Kenney took this moment to take a sip of water and gesture in deference to his future rival’s flippancy.

Both men clearly cherish the opportunity to challenge each other to be the dismantler-in-chief of the Rachel Notley NDP government. Kenney’s just a lot better at playing shy about his ambition in public, while Jean is far more open to talking about himself becoming premier. It’s not clear that much by way of policy will distinguish them in a leadership contest, so we’ll have to go by style. Which means the above observation goes a ways to showing how each politician reflects the city where they’ve spent most of their adult lives, and with which most Albertans are likely to associate them: for Kenny, it’s Ottawa; for Jean, Fort McMurray.

In negotiating this unity pact, Jean had wanted all the rules tilted in his favour: the indebted Tory party that Kenney inherited this spring would fold and everyone would join the Wildrose structure under a new name–cockily improbable terms for Jean to try setting. Kenney offered the blander option of a new structure and winding down operations of the “legacy” Tory and Wildrose brands. Kenney mostly won this round, and the UCP (tee hee, tee hee; more on that in a second) will be a new registered party, while the existing organizations will be largely mothballed though not formally disbanded. The two sides met in the middle on leadership contest timing: Jean preferred a summer contest, to give his rival less chance to organize and woo the Wildrose base; Kenney wished for a 2018 party vote so he could grow the base and overwhelm Jean, as he did the withered Tories. October 28 splits the difference.

READ MORE: The Alberta PCs are burning. That’s fine by Jason Kenney.

Neither side really came out preferring the UCP brand, which has invited the most childish tittering any party name has seen since the Canadian Alliance was CCRAP briefly two decades ago. Jean’s party had Conservative Party of Alberta in its trademark locker, but Elections Alberta refused anything too similar to existing names. The Wildrose leader suggested it could eventually be changed, though already it’s become an internal subject of mockery, so let’s see how long it lasts.

Alberta Wildrose leader Brian Jean and Alberta PC leader Jason Kenney announce a unity deal between the two in Edmonton on Thursday, May 18, 2017. (Jason Franson/CP): Alberta Wildrose leader Brian Jean and Alberta PC leader Jason Kenney announce a unity deal between the two in Edmonton on Thursday, May 18, 2017.  © Used with permission of / © Rogers Media Inc. 2017. Alberta Wildrose leader Brian Jean and Alberta PC leader Jason Kenney announce a unity deal between the two in Edmonton on Thursday, May 18, 2017. 

Much of Jean’s confidence rests in the fact polls consistently show him the preferred leader of a single conservative party, though either man seems likely to prevail among Albertans, who ever more consistently tell pollsters they want the NDP to be finished after this first surprise term. Jean exudes a small business owner’s confidence about his standing.

This could get shattered by the organizational prowess and well-financed campaign of Kenney, who learned as a federal Conservative how to cultivate and harvest support. He did this so well during the Tory race that his victory over the anti-merger establishment was near-certain even before that race formally launched last fall. In Jean’s case, he didn’t build his Wildrose support but inherited it from predecessor Danielle Smith, who abandoned it to join Jim Prentice’s doomed Tory team. He deserves credit for keeping it strong enough to remain Official Opposition, but he hasn’t been able to turn it into a behemoth that can overwhelm the NDP rookies. Kenney’s more the behemoth-creating type.

Kenney will be painted as the Ottawa guy who’d rather look beyond his past social conservative voting record, even though that’s an accurate description of both party leaders–Jean’s low-profile Parliament experience gets outshone by his personal story of resilience amid loss (his son to cancer in 2015, his home in Fort McMurray’s wildfire last year). Kenney’s positives, though, are tied to Alberta nostalgia for Stephen Harper’s government, and Kenney’s evoking of the good ol’ Ralph Klein “Alberta advantage.”

READ MORE: Brian Jean’s Wildrose Party rises from the ashes of Fort McMurray

As they appeal to voters keen to turf Notley, their greatest risk is bidding to out-right each other. The New Democrats will continually pester them about what valued services their deficit-slashing plans would result in; responsible business leaders will want to know how they plan to replace the Alberta carbon tax they so loudly deplore, in an age where Calgary corner offices have moved beyond contentment over doing nothing or next-to-nothing. Kenney was careful not to pivot away from Wildrose-friendly policies during his Tory takeover, and in the coming combat he and Jean will lose sight of the general electorate and 2019 at their peril.

Jean’s likability has seldom seemed put on; Kenney can have charm to spare, but it can seem as cautiously constructed as a guy coming out of a Dodge pickup wearing a blue blazer. Kenney offered a “let’s git ‘er done” soundbite as they sat to sign the party agreement, but Jean’s “Uh, yeah, we’re both going to face off for leadership” was the genuine bit from the day. The faceoff has begun, and nobody’s seriously waiting for a formal launch date.

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