Nelson: Conservative civil war can only provide one winner next year

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Rachel Notley must have chewed through a lip trying not to smile, as her own party’s candidate in Tuesday night’s Fort McMurray-Lac La Biche byelection went down to a crushing defeat.

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Sure, she would no doubt have made the requisite display of joy if indeed the NDP’s Ariana Mancini has managed to pull off a shocker by defeating the heavy favourite, the UCP’s Brian Jean.

But actually, the real celebration, if such an upset had taken place, would have been in the office of Premier Jason Kenney, who needs Jean in his caucus as much as the city of Kyiv requires a visit by the touring Moscow Circus.

Yes, welcome to the weird and wonderful world of Alberta provincial politics, a place so strange it makes Alice’s visit through the looking glass appear stupefyingly sane by comparison.

So, after indeed romping to victory on what was essentially a platform of promising to get rid of his new boss if elected, Jean is now the talisman around which the various factions chafing long and loud at Kenney’s control of the party he helped bring into being can coalesce.

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Well, at least we won’t have long to wait for the showdown. Let’s be grateful for that small mercy, because watching internecine family feuds can quickly turn downright disheartening to even the most casual observer.

Thankfully then, it is just over three weeks until the gathering storm clouds break when Kenney’s leadership goes to a party vote on April 9 in Red Deer. So far, more than 7,000 UCP members have signed up to attend what promises to be central Alberta’s answer to the O.K. Corral.

Yet, despite Jean now providing an answer to the previous party faithful question: “But who would take his place?” — the odds of eventually surviving the looming vote still remain in Kenney’s favour.

Backroom deals, delegate arm-twisting and future policy trade-offs: these are the lifeblood of a man who eats, sleeps and drinks politics. Look up stubbornness in the dictionary and you might find Kenney’s mug staring right back. The man does not give up.

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Still, the real issue isn’t even about whether Kenney hangs onto his job or not. The big question is if any outcome in Red Deer is capable of healing the divisions with the UCP, one that both Kenney and Jean helped piece together less than five years ago in a merger of the Progressive Conservative and Wildrose parties.

It certainly seems doubtful right now. But if they can’t bury the various hatchets someplace other than in their party opponents’ backs, then Alberta might as well get ready for the return of the NDP.

Seriously, it would be nigh on impossible to go into what will be an election year still fighting off internal rifts while gearing up to successfully take on the Dippers.

Because, whatever faults conservative-minded folk might find with Notley’s team, no one can question the provincial NDP is a tight ship when it comes to party unity. There are no backroom coups in the offing with this lot.

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And while their first term in office was somewhat accidental, given the split between the PC and Wildrose parties back in 2015, these days the Dippers are a much more dominant political force in Alberta. They are fundraising more successfully than the government and have benefited immensely from the unwavering opposition the various public sector unions have confronted Kenney with from the very moment his government took office.

So, are the various conservative factions — yep, there’s the Wildrose Independence Party in the mix, as well — going to acknowledge what seems as clear as a blue prairie sky? That if they keep ripping each other to shreds, then all it will accomplish is provide suitable tickertape for an NDP coronation next year.

Oh, and by then the pandemic will almost certainly be over and the provincial budget balanced. No wonder Notley must have found it so hard to feel disappointed Tuesday night.

Chris Nelson is a regular columnist for the Calgary Herald.

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