United Conservative Party MLAs voted to expel Cypress-Medicine Hat MLA Drew Barnes and Central Peace-Notley MLA Todd Loewen from the governing party’s caucus after an afternoon virtual caucus meeting that spilled into the evening.
The vote came less than 24-hours after Loewen released an open letter announcing his resignation as chair of the UCP Caucus and calling on Premier Jason Kenney to resign as party leader.
The vote came more than two years after Barnes began his unofficial role as chief-caucus-thorn-in-Kenney’s-side. After being overlooked for a cabinet role when the UCP formed government in 2019, the third-term MLA representing the southeast corner of Alberta publicly toyed with separatism and climate change denial and became an open critic of the government’s response to COVID-19 (claiming the mild public health restrictions went too far).
Both were former Wildrose MLAs, with Barnes being the only original Wildroser from that party’s 2012 breakthrough still sitting in the Legislative Assembly.
Kenney had no choice but to appeal to his caucus to kick Loewen out after being directly challenged. Barnes was the icing on the cake for Kenney. (Noticeably missing from this list was Bonnyville-Cold Lake-St. Paul MLA David Hanson, who posted his support for Loewen’s letter on Facebook).
The vote to expel the two, which was live-tweeted from leaks funnelled to Derek Fildebrandt‘s Western Standard website, was not cast by secret ballot but by MLAs texting their yes or no votes to new interim caucus chair, Calgary-Currie MLA Nicholas Milliken.
Now the question is whether any other UCP MLAs will join the two newly Independent MLAs in the opposition benches? Loewen and Barnes were two of 18 UCP MLAs who spoke out against the government’s COVID-19 response. And they are certainly not the only MLAs unhappy with Kenney’s leadership, which still remains on thin ice.
There is also the question of whether the two will remain as Independent MLAs for long. The Wildrose Independence Party is looking for a new leader, and the deadline to join that race is tomorrow. The Alberta Party is holding a leadership race soon, as are The Independence Party of Alberta and the Alberta Liberal Party.
But this is a short-term solution to a bigger problem for the UCP.
One of the main problems is Kenney. He remains deeply unpopular with Albertans and conservatives, a reality reflected in dropping support in the polls and his party’s dismal fundraising returns over the last six months. His divisive style of politics has alienated many Albertans, including many influential people of communities who would otherwise be traditional supporters of the governing conservative party.
As Edmonton-based strategist Chris Henderson wrote of Kenney on Twitter, “[h]e is clearly a very exceptional political lieutenant, but doesn’t have the requisite skills/temperament to sustain leadership in a complex governing environment.”
“There’s no shame in that, some people are incredible college QBs and flame out in the NFL. It happens. Time to go.,” wrote Henderson, who managed many of Don Iveson‘s successful political campaigns in Edmonton.
Kenney may have been successful in imposing caucus discipline today, but he still faces critics within his own party who are calling for his resignation.
In more normal times, this could just be argued away as growing pains for a relatively new political party, but the UCP includes some unruly groups of conservative activists who spent most of the last decade at each others throats. These ideological and regional divides are easier to mend when the party is high in the polls and flush with cash (or the price of oil is high), but when the party’s fortunes began to nosedive more than a year ago the ideological cracks instantly started to appear.
In a statement released after the meeting,, UCP Caucus Whip and Calgary-West MLA Mike Ellis said “There is simply no room in our caucus for those who continually seek to divide our party and undermine government leadership.” But that the breakdown of the vote wasn’t released suggests that it wasn’t near unanimous and that opposition to Kenney still exists inside the UCP Caucus.
The United Conservative Party already didn’t appear completely united, and now, with a growing number of former UCP MLAs sitting in the opposition benches, it appears even less united.
Kenney made an example of Barnes and Loewen by having them kicked out of the UCP Caucus, but when the other 59 UCP MLAs wake up tomorrow morning, the problems that led them to make this decision today will still remain.
Update: Drew Barnes issued a statement on social media following his eviction from the UCP Caucus.