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And then there were two … decline of the Alberta Tory leadership race mirrors decline of party

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Ken Hughes

And then there were two…

Ken Hughes, the former minister of municipal affairs and energy and the first candidate to enter the 2014 race to lead the Alberta Progressive Conservatives, has pulled out of the contest, bowing to the inevitability of a Jim Prentice coronation.

For his part, Prentice, the Calgary banker and former federal politician, continues to play cute about whether or not he's going to run to lead the sad-sack Tories back to the dynastic confidence they have enjoyed for more than four decades. But I guess we're all forced to conclude that his ascension to the giddy heights of power, Alberta style, is a foregone conclusion.

After all, the mainstream media keeps saying an "official" source who can't be named has confirmed it. An anonymous official source -- now there's a concept! Tory Government, Alberta style? Maybe they'll hold the leadership convention in secret and send up a puff of white smoke when they approve a premier.

So we'll count Prentice as one candidate, and former infrastructure minister Ric McIver, also from Calgary, as the other. Down from three Calgarians yesterday.

McIver declared his candidacy on May 7 to run for the job vacated by the catastrophic Alison Redford in March, when she was essentially fired by her own caucus, and temporarily filled by Premier Dave Hancock at the moment as he has himself fitted out for a set of judge's robes.

Hughes, who was also the first chair of Alberta Health Services, had thrown his hat in the ring a month earlier, on April 7. But lately he's had a hunted, nervous look about him, ever since the Jim Prentice candidacy began to take on the appearance of a giant juggernaut that would crush anything in its path. So his decision to bolt, revealed yesterday, hardly came as a complete surprise.

Still, Hughes's statement to the media and endorsement of Prentice sounded pretty abject, almost as if someone from the party politburo had taken him aside and given him a brisk talking to.

"When it became apparent that Jim Prentice would consider leading Alberta over the past 10 days or so, I started to reflect on what is best for Alberta given the alternatives," Hughes said in his statement. "After listening to many Albertans, it became clear there is a growing consensus that Jim Prentice is the leader Alberta needs now."

"Many Albertans." Right…

On Sunday, Attorney General Jonathan Denis, who had been touted as a candidate by himself at any rate, announced he wasn't going to run either and would also be supporting Prentice.

Last Thursday, Finance Minister Doug Horner, who had been widely touted as a likely candidate, and would have been a good one, said he wasn't going to run. He was pretty brave and didn't actually endorse Prentice by name, saying only that he would support a candidate who has not "officially" yet declared.

Given what the media's been saying about Prentice, maybe that means Horner has Labour Minister and former Deputy Premier Thomas Lukaszuk in mind. Not likely, but it's an amusing prospect nonetheless.

The same day, another rumoured leadership candidate, Energy Minister Diana McQueen, ruled herself out of the race as well. She noted: "I think we just have some outstanding candidates who are running." (Jim Prentice?)

Have I missed anyone?

So that leaves the aforementioned Lukaszuk still mulling the idea of a run -- he's promised to give us all his answer this week. McIver is still officially a candidate, although, like Hughes, he may now be regretting his imprudently early entry into the race. That said, he's scrappy and seems determined to make a fight of it now that he's in.

If this exodus of qualified insider candidates is supposed to create the impression of huge popular support for Prentice, I'm not sure that it's actually having that effect. One suspects it looks more to a lot of Albertans like a parade of rats scrambling down the hawser of a doomed ship as it lies at anchor before its last voyage. But that's just me, with my deeply ingrained dislike of right-wing political dynasties and well-known weakness for maritime metaphors.

If a leadership race with few or no candidates opposing the frontrunner is supposed to generate suspense and excitement among voters, not to mention new members from outside the party's traditional ranks, as past Tory contests have done, this situation isn't going to have that kind of impact either.

And if the steep $50,000 entry fee for candidates was supposed to raise money for a cash-poor party, the Tories can forget about that too. But then, perhaps the party elders decided to stop worrying about that idea when they realized Prentice was the only candidate with the ability to raise significant donations from the corporate sector. He is, after all, a big shot with a bank, and as robber Willie Sutton famously explained it so clearly, "that's where the money is."

Lots of people, including many whose views I respect, think Prentice really will be the answer to the PCs' problems, and that he really will enable the party to renew its brand and revive its prospects for another generation in power.

But this lack of interest by qualified candidates with deep roots in the provincial PC party, not to mention the giddy anointment of a congenial outsider known by almost no one who is not a charter member of the province's chattering classes is a sign both of desperation and the party's profound problems.

If the Tories had a better chance of winning the next general election, more and better candidates would be running. It's as simple as that. This leadership race is a sign of the Progressive Conservative Party's final decline.

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

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