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How the mighty have fallen: Former finance minister Doug Horner pulls the plug on Alberta politics

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Doug Horner

Doug Horner, who was clearly the best qualified of the three frontrunners in the 2011 race for the leadership of the Alberta Progressive Conservative Party, pulled the plug on provincial politics yesterday.

Given the shabby treatment Horner has received from Premier Jim Prentice, it's hard to see how a man who was once a 900-pound gorilla in the Legislature and member of the party's once-powerful 4H Club had much choice.

Indeed, although it's not been made explicit by anyone, Horner may well have been given no choice at all by Prentice. Who needs a thoughtful, intelligent potential rival who is known to have made a credible run for your job in the not-so-distant past when you have the unthreatening likes of Danielle Smith to put in your cabinet?

Horner came third in the 2011 leadership race, leaving then-frontrunner Gary Mar and eventual victor Alison Redford to battle it out for the province's top political job on the final ballot counted on Oct. 2.

If Horner had won the race, there's no doubt in my mind he would have won the 2012 election with ease, whenever he decided to call it, and would still be premier today.

This is a little more speculative, but if he'd thrown his support to Mar instead of betting on Redford, he'd probably still be finance minister, or in a similarly influential position.

And who knows, if the planets had aligned correctly, at a still-youthful-looking 54, the photogenic Horner might yet have been in a position to become premier.

No more. He backed the wrong horse, and then became identified as one of Redford's key supporters throughout her catastrophic reign. This is more than bad luck: one of Horner's key strengths as a politician, unswerving loyalty to his leader, also turned out to be a pivotal weakness with a leader as spectacularly awful as Redford.

It was particularly unfortunate for Horner's political future that as finance minister his was the portfolio responsible for the government of Alberta's small fleet of aircraft, famously misused by Redford or someone on her political staff in the so-called Fakes on a Place Scandal.

This led to calls for Horner's resignation in the summer of 2014, which he ignored. Premier pro tempore Dave Hancock wouldn't fire him.

Perhaps if he had resigned then it would have been different, but when Prentice was elected PC leader with a mandate to clean up the mess left by Redford a decision was quickly made Horner was too closely identified with the pratfalls of the Redford government to be in the new premier’s first cabinet.

He was briefly given a meaningless job as the premier's envoy to Ottawa, Saskatoon and like backwaters, based in Edmonton, but talk of that soon ceased, and legislative scuttlebutt lately has it the position has evaporated too.

Rumours under the Dome also indicated Horner would be readmitted to cabinet -- perhaps as the minister of staples and photocopiers or something similarly insignificant -- when Prentice shuffled his ministers to welcome Smith, the former Wildrose Opposition leader, Rob Anderson, her House leader, and perhaps some other members of the Wildrose Party last December.

Alas for Horner, we all know what happened then. The PC caucus rebelled. The shuffle had to wait. Brought low because Redford messed up while he stood by supportively, Horner was consigned to utter darkness because Prentice fumbled the attempted hostile reverse-takeover of the Wildrose Party.

Horner is the scion of a successful political family. His father and three of his uncles were Members of Parliament -- one of them, "Cactus Jack," a notorious floor-crosser, defected to the Liberals under Pierre Trudeau. His grandfather was a Canadian Senator. Horner himself has been the MLA for Spruce Grove-St. Albert since 2001, and a member of cabinet since he was appointed minister of agriculture by Ralph Klein in 2004.

A charming and congenial man, he was well liked in the riding even by those few citizens, of whom your blogger is one, who didn't approve of the policies he advocated. Horner had the talent, highly useful to a politician, of actually listening, and even appearing to be sympathetic to his interlocutor, even if he wasn't particularly.

Loyal to his leader to the end, Horner insisted his demotion from cabinet had nothing to do with his decision to join Ken Hughes and Hancock in retirement. Of the once influential 4H Club, only former health minister Fred Horne remains an MLA, perhaps not for long.

Horner will resign his seat in the Legislature on Jan. 31. Spruce Grove-St. Albert PCs will choose a new candidate on Feb. 21. One shudders to imagine!

With Horner safely on the skids, Premier Prentice was effusive in his praise. "Tireless worker … significant contributions … trusted partner … solid counsel … distinguished service …" You get the picture.

In his parting statement, Horner said he leaves the job with mixed emotions. I'll bet that's true!

He'll do very nicely in the private sector, thank you very much. But it'll never be the same.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.

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