EDMONTON — In a tumultuous day for the political right in Alberta, talk of merging the Wildrose and the Progressive Conservative parties ramped up Thursday while one of the contenders for the Tory leadership pulled out of the campaign, saying the race has "devolved into vitriol, anger and division."
Stephen Khan issued a statement on his Twitter feed announcing his withdrawal, saying the reputation of the party is "damaged so badly ... that our credibility may be beyond repair."
The surprise announcement came the same day that Wildrose Leader Brian Jean opened the door to uniting with the Tories, saying consolidating conservatives under a single banner is the best chance to defeat Premier Rachel Notley's NDP.
Tory leadership candidate Jason Kenney lauded Jean's announcement, saying it was time "to bury the hatchet, park the egos, park the brands and labels and get past a decade of division.''
However, Khan, like fellow leadership candidate Byron Nelson, had said he was running to rebuild, not merge the Conservative party.
"I entered this leadership race because there has been an obvious leadership vacuum in our party since May 2015 and I believed that we could do politics better than we have in the past,'' the former Tory MLA said in his statement.
"I was confident that this race would be one of ideas and hope for Alberta's future and I expected it to be a well-run and principled campaign.''
But he said that has not been the case, and he can no longer participate in good conscience.
Stephen Khan said the Alberta PC leadership race has "devolved into vitriol, anger and division." (Photo: Facebook)
"I will remain a proud member and volunteer with the Progressive Conservative Party of Alberta. Going forward, I will put my support behind Richard Starke and I would ask my supporters to do the same.''
Starke, who has been a staunch critic of Kenney's unity plan, said Thursday he would also seek an accommodation with the Wildrose. He said in a news release that would mean both parties working together in an election to eliminate vote splitting, while maintaining the parties as separate entities with two leaders and two caucuses.
Earlier in the day, Jean said if a merger is going to happen, the Wildrose members have to say yes, and it will be done under the Wildrose umbrella and under Wildrose rules. He said if the party votes to merge, he will step down as leader and run in a leadership race to be held this summer.
"Let me be clear on this point — I plan to be Alberta's next premier,'' said Jean in a video statement.
Brian Jean said he and Wildrose members will gauge interest in a merger with the Progressive Conservatives. (Photo: Facebook/Brian Jean)
"It is my vision and my plan to make Alberta a place of unparalleled greatness, leading the strongest period of job creation in our history.''
Jean said he is acting on the wishes of most party members who have told him over the past year that he should pursue unity, but only in a way that honours the Wildrose commitment to grassroots democracy.
He said he and other caucus members will attend town hall meetings to gauge the interest and attain a clear mandate to hold such a vote "if the PC members select a dance partner that we've been looking for.''
Kenney said if he wins the March 18 delegated vote, he will seek a mandate to dissolve the Progressive Conservative party and merge it with a dissolved Wildrose party to create a new conservative entity, possibly titled the Conservative Party of Alberta.
The PCs will pick a new leader at a delegated convention in March. (Photo: Dean Bennett/CP)
He wants party members to make major decisions and to have a united party ready to fight the next provincial election in the spring of 2019.
Asked about Jean's plan to keep the Wildrose framework and funding intact, Kenney said that will be sorted out.
"I'm not going to get into legal argy-bargy at this point. The fundamental question is whether or not we seek unity."
Kenney's campaign has polarized debate within the party. Critics say he is moving the PCs to the fringe and away from the political mainstream by embracing the Wildrose brand of social conservatism.
PC party members also voted overwhelmingly last spring to rebuild the party and not pursue any mergers.