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Despite signs of rebellion, don't expect Alberta's United Conservative Party to split any time soon

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Jason Kenney celebrates his victory in the United Conservative Party leadership race in October, 2017. Image: Jason Kenney/Twitter

Is a rebellion brewing in southern Alberta against Alberta Premier Jason Kenney among the United Conservative Party's old Wildrose crowd?

Is there a prairie fire smouldering in the heart of Wild Rose Country that might turn into another "upstart conservative party"?

It could happen. I'm here to tell you not to bet your farm on it, though.

There's certainly been some chatter on social media about this in the past few days, much of it focused on a couple of tweets by Cypress-Medicine Hat MLA Drew Barnes.

In addition to having had a reputation as a loose cannon ever since he was first elected as a Wildrose MLA in 2012, Barnes is showing signs of alienation nowadays from the tight control of MLAs that characterizes Kenney's leadership.

Alert readers will recall that the noble idea of independent MLAs accountable only to their constituents was a big part of the Wildrose pitch to a province where people like to imagine they're rugged individualists, if not a distinct society.

Never mind that letting MLAs run loose would also be something close to political suicide in practice, something an old pro like Kenney, even if he is a notorious micromanager, certainly understands.

The former Medicine Hat real estate salesman saw his ambitions of a cabinet post thwarted after the UCP came to power in April last year. Plus, he may be a little put out that the government's now sitting on the report of the "fair deal" panel, after he dutifully participated in its travelling roadshow and no doubt contributed a few proto-separatist observations behind closed doors.

At any rate, Barnes generated some buzz Sunday when he tweeted a link to a Global News article citing the "eye-popping" salaries paid to Kenney's political praetorian guard.

Pay in the 19-member club ranged from a high of $224,137 for both the premier's chief of staff and his principal secretary down to a "tour manager," who at $114,556 was at the bottom of the scale. The story, by the way, was broken the day before by the Medicine Hat News.

Barnes's following tweet quoted the Global article, quoting him, saying, "Let's look for value. Every decision, for hard-earned tax dollars, let's look to get that money to where it'll do the most good." The implication was that paying $194,540 to the likes of Matt Wolf, the premier's "executive director of issues management," is not putting money where it will do the most good.

This will not put Barnes in the good graces of Premier Kenney, someone for whom, like his mentor Stephen Harper, loyalty doesn't necessarily run both ways. So rumours a cabal of rebel MLAs, possibly led by Barnes himself, plotting a UCP secession in the south were probably inevitable.

A Twitter thread on Monday by former NDP caucus staffer Scott Harold Payne added to the buzz by arguing Barnes knew what he was doing, suggesting names of a few neighbouring MLAs who might be sympathetic, and pointing out that it's not just MLAs whose feathers are ruffled.

Half a dozen members of the UCP's Livingstone-Macleod Constituency Association quit a year ago in response to Kenney's top-down leadership style and the swift demise of his so-called "grassroots guarantee" once he was leader. Those people have presumably been doing something since they resigned.

Still, a full-blown rebellion is unlikely for two reasons:

First, as the leader of a majority government with authoritarian inclinations, Kenney possesses powerful tools to humble rebels in his party's midst. And I'm not just talking about a stern call from Stephen Harper, although I'm sure they'd get that too.

We all saw what happened to Derek Fildebrandt, a considerably bolder and more charismatic politician than Barnes or any remaining rural UCP MLA, when he crossed Kenney. He was crushed like a bug, all but reduced to blogging!

The former MLA for Strathmore-Brooks and rising UCP star may have been emboldened by the fact he had gotten away with defying former Wildrose party leader Brian Jean. He discovered to his regret that Jason Kenney is no Brian Jean.

Second, and more important in my estimation, is the terrible shock Alberta's divided Conservatives had in 2015 when the NDP not only formed a government, but won a comfortable majority under Rachel Notley.

The trauma of May 5, 2015, caused bitterness among Wildrosers and Progressive Conservatives that was visceral at times.

Alberta Conservatives had always imagined they could afford a little rebellion to open the Overton window further to the right. Notley proved them wrong.

So when it came time to form a United Conservative Party, many put aside their doubts to embrace the leadership of a man whose history suggested he was likely to ignore the sensibilities of Wildrosers and Red Tories alike.

They now know a significant split in their ranks could once again open a path to the NDP, still led by Notley, which nowadays looks both competent and lucky compared to the UCP in light of the terrible hand Kenney has been dealt and the ridiculous way he's played it.

No, Kenney may irritate Barnes and some of his disaffected rural neighbours, but it's unlikely they'll risk a split that could boost an NDP that now knows far more about both campaigning and governing than it did in 2015.

Breaking up is always hard to do. I'd be delighted to be proved wrong, but I'm pretty sure the factions of the UCP aren't about to break up any time soon.

David Climenhaga, author of the Alberta Diary blog, is a journalist, author, journalism teacher, poet and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions at The Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. This post also appears on his blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.

Image: Jason Kenney/Twitter

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