10/15/2016 10:28 EDT | Updated 10/16/2017 01:12 EDT

Ex-Alberta premier Dave Hancock says Jim Prentice stepped up when PCs were down

EDMONTON — Former Alberta premier Dave Hancock says he remembers the Jim Prentice who didn't shrink from a challenge when the Progressive Conservatives saw their government plunged into crisis over a debilitating spending scandal.

Then-premier Alison Redford had quit, morale was in the ditch, and poll numbers were in the tank.

"At a time when the party was in a deep valley, he was prepared to step up and to say 'I've got some talents and abilities and I'll contribute them,'" said Hancock in an interview.

"It was an important time for the party. He made a difference."

Prentice, 60, died Thursday along with three others in a plane crash in B.C.

He had stepped aside from public life after a career in the backrooms or as an elected official in Alberta and federal conservative parties.

His final foray in the public arena was as Alberta premier — a short run that lasted about eight months and led in May 2015 to the toppling of a PC party that had governed Alberta for more than four decades.

With it came questions of, "Why?" and "What if?" that linger to this day.

Hancock served as interim premier after Redford quit in 2014 and before Prentice won the PC party leadership that fall to become premier.

Hancock said he and Prentice go back 40 years, to working on former PC prime minister Joe Clark's leadership campaign in the mid-1970s.

"All the time I've known him (he) has been somebody who brings intellect and capacity together with an understanding that you have an obligation to contribute back to building a better community," said Hancock.

Prentice came back at a precipitous time.

The right-centre Wildrose party under then leader Danielle Smith was on the rise.

Prentice, a former cabinet member under Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper, had been out of politics working as banker, but was still whispered to be Harper's heir apparent.

Smith, now a broadcaster, recalled fighting to keep Prentice out.

"I tried desperately through very many intermediaries to try to convince him not to come back, to say, 'Look, wait. Go at the federal level. The PC party is a lost cause,'" said Smith in an interview.

Prentice staunched the PC bleeding, selling off symbols of entitlement like government airplanes and reassuring Albertans that the province was "under new management" of fiscal probity.

They PCs soon won four crucial byelections and the poll numbers started to come back.

The coup de grace seemed to come in December 2014, when Smith and most of her Opposition Wildrose colleagues crossed the floor to join Prentice, believing his fight for fiscal conservatism was their fight.

Smith said Prentice was the perfect blend of political experience and business acumen, with the ability to command a room and knit together social progressives and fiscal conservatives.

"I wish that he'd had more opportunity to be able to be premier," said Smith.

The PC merger with the Wildrose was thought to be a master stroke, mirroring Prentice's efforts at healing differences between feuding federal conservatives.

It turned out to be a grave miscalculation.

Gutting Alberta's Opposition was seen by many as a betrayal of democratic checks and balances. It was viewed by Wildrose hardcore, and even some PCs, as a cold-blooded betrayal.

"People who didn't even like the Wildrose were appalled at the notion he would basically try and neuter the Opposition," said pollster and political analyst Janet Brown.

The Wildrose rallied under new leader Brian Jean and today remain Official Opposition

Prentice, meanwhile, made other missteps as oil prices began to plummet, a process that in the months to come would suck thousands of jobs and billions of dollars out of the Alberta economy.

Tax hikes and budget cuts loomed, so Prentice called en early election to get a mandate to make them.

Along the way, he told Alberta voters to "look in the mirror" if they were unhappy with the state of the province. It was an apt analysis given the maxim that voters get the government they deserve, but not the ideal pitch to people who would soon decide his fate.

He promised higher taxes and fees, saying everyone had to pitch in, then said oil royalties and large corporations would not pay more, feeding the narrative for critics who labelled him "Diamond Jim" the corporate shill.

On election night, the Tories were trounced, reduced to a handful of seats while Rachel Notley's NDP swept to an historic majority government. Prentice won his seat but announced that night he wouldn't serve.

Political scientist Duane Bratt said Prentice tried to right a ship that was dangerously overloaded with four decades of political baggage.

"To pin the 2015 election on Jim Prentice solely is incredibly unfair," said Bratt, with Mount Royal University in Calgary.

"Did he contribute to the loss? Absolutely. But I'd like to know (if there's) any leader, whether it's the second coming of Peter Lougheed or Ralph Klein, that could have won that election for the PCs."