Jason Kenney pledges to resign as premier, exposing a growing rift in Canada’s conservative coalition

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney gives a thumbs up after his speech at the United Conservative Party annual meeting in Calgary on Nov. 20, 2021. Larry MacDougal/The Canadian Press.

CALGARY — Alberta Premier Jason Kenney abruptly pledged to resign Wednesday evening after a narrow victory in a leadership review wasn’t enough to convince him he had the support of the United Conservative Party membership.

The result leaves the party to choose a new leader and premier of the province, in what is the culmination of a long and fractious resistance to Kenney’s leadership from the right sparked by his government’s measures to control the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The result is not what I hoped for or, frankly, what I expected,” said Kenney, to a room full of supporters. “I truly believe that we need to move forward united. We need to put the past behind us. A large number of our members have asked for the opportunity to clear the air through a leadership election.”

The party faithful had gathered at a sports facility south of Calgary to hear the results of the leadership review, which came out to 51.4 percent in favour of his leadership, and Kenney’s decision caused audible gasps from some members and left others in tears.

The UCP caucus will meet Thursday morning before the party launches a leadership election to elect Kenney’s successor as permanent leader and premier.

In a short speech announcing his intention to resign, Kenney urged party members to put the divisive pandemic politics behind them and focus on unifying the party.

“Friends, it’s clear that the past two years were deeply divisive for our province, our party, and our caucus. But it is my fervent hope that in the months to come, we all move past the division of COVID,” said Kenney.

Kenney placed all the blame for the party’s strife on the pandemic measures and said the UCP had “reunited the free enterprise movement in Alberta,” balancing the budget, winning a massive electoral mandate in 2019, and leading Canada in economic and job growth.

Many of Kenney’s public comments in the lead-up to the vote expressed frustration that the two-year COVID-19 health crisis and the anger at the subsequent restrictions were overshadowing his government’s record on fulfilling its election promises.1Jason Kenney’s critics are wrong. Alberta is the only place conservatism is winning https://nationalpost.com/opinion/sean-speer-jason-kenneys-critics-are-wrong-alberta-is-the-only-place-conservatism-is-winning

The vote was the culmination of an extraordinary leadership review that exposed major rifts in the conservative coalition in Alberta and across the country.

The backlash to pandemic restrictions has been boiling in Alberta since the province first brought in widespread restrictions, but the issue erupted nationally earlier this year when Freedom Convoy protests seized the national political conversation for weeks.

Kenney drew a direct line from the trucker protests to his leadership review at a news conference in February.

“There will be an effort, obviously by many of the folks involved in these protests, who have perhaps never belonged to a party before, to show up at that special general meeting and to use it as a platform for their anger about COVID measures over the past two years,” Kenney told reporters.

The political energy fueled by pandemic fury bubbled up intermittently across the country.

The trucker protests that gridlocked Ottawa and blocked major border crossings between Canada and the U.S. caused a rift in the Conservative Party, in part leading to the downfall of Erin O’Toole.2Where does Canadian conservatism go from here? https://thehub.ca/2022-02-04/where-does-canadian-conservatism-go-from-here/ Pierre Poilievre, the frontrunner in the subsequent leadership race, has centred his campaign around the idea of “freedom,” and has defended the trucker protests from criticism.3Poilievre says vaccine mandates are based on ‘political science’ not medical science in conversation with Jordan Peterson https://thehub.ca/2022-05-18/poilievre-says-vaccine-mandates-are-based-on-political-science-not-medical-science-in-conversation-with-jordan-peterson/

Last year’s federal election saw the Liberal Party embrace vaccine mandates as a wedge issue against the Conservative Party and the campaign saw rowdy protests in response. The People’s Party of Canada focused on pandemic restrictions, drawing major rallies and its highest ever vote share.

The Ontario election has seen a new party emerge on the right flank of the Progressive Conservative Party, pushing opposition to pandemic restrictions and accusing Doug Ford of leading a “left wing” party.4A new party sees an opening on Doug Ford’s right flank https://thehub.ca/2022-05-16/a-new-party-sees-an-opening-on-doug-fords-right-flank/

Nowhere has it been more furious than in Alberta. Along with a two-week blockade of the U.S. border near Coutts, the province has seen sporadic protests and simmering discontent in its rural areas.

For Kenney, the end of a long battle marks the beginning of a new trial for his party that may be even more daunting. With a general election scheduled for May 29, 2023, the future leader of the UCP will face a fierce NDP opposition led by a former premier and will be tasked with calming an unruly populist faction of the party.

Kenney’s speech focused on those divisions but wrapped up with an optimistic tone reminiscent of his early days in provincial politics, when he spent years campaigning to unite the right and wrestle power from an NDP government.

“While we have our internal differences, we must remember the shared values that unite us as conservatives,” said Kenney. “And we must always remember the promise of Alberta, this great land of opportunity, where dreams come true.”

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