Let’s imagine for a moment that the Progressive Conservative Party — led by Jim Prentice or whomever — loses the next Alberta general election.

For long-time Albertans, like this blogger, this possibility seems both incomprehensible and quite possible.

That is to say, after close to half a century, it’s very hard to imagine an Alberta without Progressive Conservatives, so called, with their paws on the tiller. At the same time, after a couple of years under the remarkably tone-deaf leadership of Alison Redford, the inconceivable has become quite conceivable, thank you very much.

Of course, we can take it as given that if the PCs actually lose, regardless of how badly, it will be to the Wildrose Party — which is really just disaffected outsider wing of the same ideological movement.

Accordingly, on policy or ideology, there is not much difference between the Wildrosers led by Danielle Smith and the PCs under any possible leader. The details are all in the margins — a little debt versus no debt at all, for example. Wildrose rhetoric also tends to be sharper. That’s about it.

So, in order to think the unthinkable, let’s first assume Prentice emerges the winner of the Tory leadership contest now under way. He’s the likely winner anyway, and it’s hard to imagine the likes of my buddy Thomas Lukaszuk leading the party to anything but annihilation on an apocalyptic scale. As for Ric McIver, I’m sure he has his strengths, but he’s hardly said anything for days. Is he still running a campaign, or just desperately seeking a campaign exit strategy?

So … if the Tories under Prentice lose, the next unanswerable but important question becomes: How badly? This makes a difference, of course, to the survivability of the party.

So we need to ask, to grasp the obvious federal political metaphor, if in these circumstances Prentice becomes a first minister like Federal No. 21, Paul Martin, also known as Mr. Dithers, who emerged from the 2006 national election with his Liberals in second place with a still respectable 103 seats? Or is he going to be like No. 19, Kim Campbell, AKA Calamity Kim, who emerged from the 1993 election with her PCs holding only two seats, neither of them hers?

If in the event of a loss by Prentice, it turns out to be on the scale of Calamity Kim’s, we can take it as given that the party is done like dinner. We will be able to write “FINIS” on election night on the Progressive Conservative dynasty founded by Peter Lougheed back in 1971.

If he emerges as a Paul Martin, however, there is hope for the PCs … if he and the party play their lousy hand the right way.

The myth in Alberta media circles is that Alberta governments change dramatically and seismically once every epoch. Arguably the reality has been a bit less dramatic. Social Credit lost to Lougheed’s PCs in ’71, but when the dust had settled, outgoing premier Harry Strom still had a somewhat respectable 25 seats to the new PC premier’s 49.

So Social Credit (which used to insist it wasn’t a party, but a movement, or at the very least a league) might have been able to survive if its members and leaders had had the will to do so.

Thus the first question for Prentice and his party in the event of a respectable loss to the Wildrose — let’s call this the Mr. Dithers Scenario — is if there is any reason for the PCs to survive, or do they wish to proceed directly to a hostile reverse takeover by the Wildrose Party? Exactly, in other words, what was done by the Reform Party to the federal post-Kim-Campbell PCs after the Invasion of the Party Snatchers in 2003.

This boils down to the question of whether the differences between the hardline market fundamentalism of the Wildrose Party and the slightly softer rhetoric and marginally more flexible policies of the PCs (which almost faded from view under Redford’s self-destructive leadership) are big enough to justify splitting the conservative vote.

I think it is a given that for many PCs, if not the people they elect to represent them, there is enough difference not to fold the party.

Moreover, under Prentice in the lead-up to the election, the party is certain to be telling the rest of us that these differences do matter.

So I think it is reasonable for undecided voters, strategic voters and the like to ask the question: “If the differences between you and the Wildrose really matter, and you lose, what do you plan to do after the election?”

In other words, will you keep your promises to represent us, or will you fold your tent and go away? Surely this is a key consideration for any potential strategic voter. After all, in practical terms, the impact of allowing a reverse takeover of the party, as the federal PCs did in 2003, is no different from walking across the floor of the House and joining the party your supporters elected you to oppose.

In the event of a loss, even a respectable one, Prentice’s instinct will likely be to throw in the towel and quit — and his party’s atavistic reaction will be to devour him alive if he does not.

Which brings us to the question the Tories will have to answer if they lose and decide to soldier on: In such circumstances, how do Progressive Conservatives survive to govern another day?

Remember, the first term of any government — and a Wildrose government will be no different — is bound to be rocky as they figure out how to rule, get their radical factions under control and avoid the slide toward PC-like entitlement, a weed that springs up very quickly in any party when fertilized by power.

If a Wildrose government stumbled in its early days, PCs might have an opportunity to recover government, especially if their margin of loss was not too great.

But the only way for the PC Party not to collapse utterly, like a rickety structure that no longer has any reason to exist, would be for its leader to stick around and serve as leader of the Opposition, and for his party to accept that.

Continuity and commitment, it is said here, would do more to ensure survival than the fifth pretty face since Ralph Klein, never mind surrender by absorption into the Wildrose Party.

This would probably be too much to ask of Prentice — who, after all, will have a very gentle landing awaiting him back in the banking industry. And it would likely be too much for the party too — which has an instinct for turning on unsuccessful leaders. Also, PC members and their party will be avidly wooed by the Wildrosers, who will likely even offer to keep the Conservative name (the brand, after all, will remain valuable) and eliminate only the obsolete reference to anything progressive.

But if Prentice and his party were willing to prove the truth of what they will doubtless promise during the coming election campaign — that there really is a difference — the PC Party and brand could survive.

There! We’ve done it, people! We’ve actually thought the unthinkable! It wasn’t that bad, was it?

This post also appears on David Climenhaga’s blog, Alberta Diary.

David J. Climenhaga

David J. Climenhaga

David Climenhaga is a journalist and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions with the Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. He left journalism after the strike...