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Was he or wasn’t he? The question hung over a meeting room at Toronto’s Board of Trade, where Jason Kenney had come to address more than 100 energy and construction executives at a conference billed as Canada’s New Industrial Revolution. The question had 1/24dogged him for months: was he positioning himself to throw his hat into the ring for the leadership of the Conservative Party?

Speculation about his ambitions was rife ever since the unfolding Senate scandal raised a possibility that would have been unthinkable only months earlier: the notion that Stephen Harper may have outlived his shelf life as leader. Now, whenever the punditocracy pondered Harper’s successors, Kenney’s name topped every list—not that he did anything to quash the rumours. On the eve of the Conservative convention in Calgary last November, he issued a stirring defence of the prime minister’s former chief of staff, Nigel Wright, which some delegates considered tantamount to heresy. Only days after Harper switched stories to accuse Wright of deceiving him—failing to inform the PM that he was repaying Senator Mike Duffy’s improperly claimed expenses with a $90,000 personal cheque— Kenney implied that there just might be another version of events, extolling Wright as “a person of good faith, of competence, with high ethical standards.”

His departure from the prime ministerial script left jaws agape in the convention’s hospitality suites, and prompted National Post columnist Andrew Coyne to conclude that “slowly, tentatively, the race to succeed [Harper] has begun. It is not an open challenge to his leadership, yet. But it is not quite the loyal ‘aye aye sir’ he might once have expected.”