Last night, Brian Jean won the by-election in Fort McMurray-Lac La Biche, and did so handily, capturing 63.6 per cent of the 5,837 votes cast (24 per cent voter turnout). Jean’s win was a foregone conclusion, and he once again becomes an MLA, making this the third time Jean has held public office. He resigned after losing the highly publicized and investigation-laden UCP leadership race to Jason Kenney in 2018. Since then, Jean has been a thorn in Kenney’s political and personal side.

Over the course of the pandemic, Jean wrote long, wide-ranging public political discourses, often bordering on controversial. Jean threw his name in once Laila Goodridge stepped down as MLA to run federally. This surprised no one, given his outright condemnation of Kenney and the UCP’s direction under his leadership.

Jean’s entire election platform has been about him fighting Jason Kenney, and little to do with the community itself. In fact, if you visited, it does not talk about what Jean will do for the community that elected him– a community that is arguably Alberta’s economic driver. Nor does it mention his family or his history in politics. So one wonders if Kenney survives, how Jean can remain as a member of the UCP?

What is certain is that Kenney will be facing more strife from within the caucus in the lead-up to the April 9 vote. There will be several MLAs that align themselves behind Jean. And, if Kenney survives the leadership vote, Jean and these MLAs may break off and join another right-wing party. This would be very bad news for Kenney, possibly leaving him in a minority situation and fighting not only the NDP but his fellow conservatives.

Jean has run on the premise of renewing the UCP. Post-victory, Jean noted the by-election was about stopping the NDP in 2023 but starting the renewal of the UCP now. In a party that is still just in the toddler phase, the question of renewing the UCP is problematic for a variety of reasons, the largest question it poses: are conservatives in Alberta really united?

The road into the leadership review has been rocky for Kenney. Regardless of the outcome, his adversaries are coming from all sides and now inside. As in all leadership politics, this leadership review has led to a scorched earth mentality from Fort MacMurray to the Coutts Border Crossing. This political tug of war will only hurts Albertans at a time when Alberta’s economic tides are turning. Between the freedom fighting Jean and convoy of naysayers or those still firmly in Camp Kenney, who benefits from all the petulant in-fighting? Rachel Notley’s NDP.

What does this mean?

Until the April 9th leadership review, any engagement with government should be on hold until focus returns to the legislature. If Kenney does meet his threshold to remain leader a cabinet shuffle will likely follow, bringing in his pre-election starting lineup.

As all eyes shift to April, some see the leadership review as an evaluation of Kenney’s brand of Alberta conservatism, with Jean ready and willing to offer an alternative. Anything less than 50-plus-one percent sparks a leadership race, resulting in a complete UCP makeover just one year out from the next general election.

Authored by H+K’s team in Calgary and Edmonton, Alberta: Tim Moro, Natalie Sigalet, Jessica Conlin and Eliza Snider.