John Ivison: Jason Kenney’s newfound energy signals that the Tory leadership race has started in earnest

is feeling better. That doesn’t mean he will run for the federal Conservative Party leadership – “I haven’t decided,” he said Friday – but the odds have improved considerably from the days before Christmas when he could be seen shuffling around Parliament Hill, a pale shadow of his ebullient former self.

After a decade in government that featured 1,600 flights and 2,000 nights in hotels, and an election in which he attended 500 events in 150 ridings, he said he needed to hibernate.

“I’ve taken some time to slow down a bit after 10 hectic years,” Kenney said over lunch in the Parliamentary Restaurant. He even went on his first vacation in years, to find his genealogical roots in Devon, England. “I wanted to have a clear mind and think about the future.”

Kenney has long been considered the front-runner in the campaign to replace Stephen Harper – he’s a high profile former minister with the organizational and financial firepower to blow away less well-known rivals.

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His riding association raised $500,000 last year, $50,000 from one email alone. But supporters have been concerned he may have lost his ambition. He refused to take a critic position and has not risen during question period, despite being one of the official Opposition’s most effective offensive weapons. “Jason’s been in the fetal position for months,” said one senior Conservative organizer.

That changed this week. The former defence minister led off debate in question period Friday, in the absence of interim leader, Rona Ambrose.

Kenney said he will head back on the road early next month, to consult his informal network of friends.

“I want to talk about the future of the party and what role I can play in it,” he said.

He is being courted both federally and provincially in Alberta, where many see him as the man to unite the fractured right. Kenney said his focus is on federal politics. “I ran for re-election – I don’t intend to leave Parliament,” he said.

His re-emergence on the public stage will have a seismic impact on the leadership race. If Kenney decides to run, it will drain money and organizational resources from other potential candidates, like Tony Clement. If he opts out, it will provide those same people with a massive boost.

If Kenney does step forward, he will not lack for detractors, starting over his role in the election and the fact that he is another middle-aged white guy from Calgary.

“I’m not getting into shadow boxing but the geographic issue is not an issue. The issue of bilingualism is much more important,” he said.

His fluent French was on display Friday as he chatted to the restaurant’s francophone staff. One suspects that none of the other contenders, with the obvious exception of Maxime Bernier, would be as comfortable in French.

Kenney believes he has plenty of time to reach a decision. He recalled when he chaired Stockwell Day’s leadership bid for the Canadian Alliance in 2000, there was only a three-month window between declaring and the vote.

“I don’t think Conservatives, or Canadians, want us to adopt the U.S. practice of 12- to 18-month primary campaigns.”

He said the party’s executive council was wise to schedule the vote in mid-2017 to give people time to decompress after the election. But he said it would not be unreasonable to wait until the party’s convention in May in Vancouver before giving a final decision.

Rivals will point out that Kenney lost some of his “happy warrior” allure during the election, when he became associated with campaign missteps such as the “barbaric cultural practices tipline” and heated rhetoric over the niqab.

The fatal flaw was our tone. It seemed too often the government went out of its way to make enemies, not friends, starting with the media

He admits mistakes were made.

“The fatal flaw was our tone. It seemed too often the government went out of its way to make enemies, not friends, starting with the media,” he said.

“On identity questions, every public opinion poll demonstrated a super-majority of Canadians supporting the notion that the citizenship oath should be taken openly … So I think we were on the right side of those issues substantively and politically. But when dealing with sensitive issues you have to communicate with great nuance and subtlety. I accept that was not necessarily the case in our campaign.”

The received wisdom is that these mistakes led to a hemorrhaging of support from the loose coalition of new Canadians that Kenney, more than anyone else, had helped knit together. But he disputes there was a repudiation of the Conservative message among ethnic voters.

“We got 32 per cent of the new Canadian vote, down from the low 40s in 2011, which was proportionate to our popular vote. It’s encouraging that it is still a far higher percentage than the Conservative Party has attracted historically. The problem is our vote didn’t grow with the electorate, which was mostly an issue with the under-30s. The bottom line is we now have a competitive environment. It wasn’t catastrophic.”

On cue, we are interrupted by a young Chinese man who asked if Kenney would come by his table.

He obliged and was greeted warmly, pressing flesh and posing for selfies.

It was the kind of Justin Trudeau-esque performance he was born to – one he clearly relishes. It removed the lingering doubt in my mind that Jason Kenney has his mojo back; that he will enter the Conservative leadership race in May; and, that he will immediately become the prohibitive favourite to win.

National Post

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