Two of John Key's closest allies, chief of staff Wayne Eagleson and campaign manager and MP Steven Joyce, on the evening of National's election victory in 2014. (Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

What if National’s problem isn’t the leadership, but the cabal?

Two fresh scandals in a week, around Nick Smith and Jake Bezzant, have left the National Party stuck firmly in the mire. But tempting though it might be to pin it on Judith Collins, there’s something else at play: successful leaders the world over have powerful lieutenants and key advisers, writes Danyl Mclauchlan.

What’s up with the National Party? I don’t just mean the string of blunders and scandals. I mean, like, organisationally. It can’t just be bad leadership: Judith Collins seems to be handling each catastrophe adequately, and the party itself seems like such a disaster it’s hard to imagine anyone could lead it well.

But it can’t just be the party, either. Because whatever is going on with National looks a lot like the collapse the Labour Party experienced during its first two terms in opposition. And that, as everyone pointed out at the time, looked a lot like the trauma National experienced during the early years of the Clark government when Bill English led National to a catastrophic defeat.

It feels like there’s something deeper at work here with these repeating opposition meltdowns, and we don’t seem to see the same process in comparable democracies. The major parties of Australia or the US or the UK don’t disintegrate then painfully rebuild themselves the way ours have a habit of doing. They do sometimes – the UK Labour Party is currently going through a rough patch. But not compulsively. What is going on?

Political pundits often obsess about leadership. Who will take over the National Party next? Nicola Willis? Christopher Luxon? (I call this the Fiat Luxon option because it’s taking on an increasingly messianic tone.) After all, Labour was unelectable without Jacinda Ardern as leader, and now it feels unbeatable. National was unbeatable under John Key, and then he left and now they’re unelectable. Leadership seems to be everything.

My theory is that Labour didn’t just get a leader when Ardern took over Labour. They got a leadership cabal consisting of Ardern and her friends Chris Hipkins and Grant Robertson, whom she’d worked with as political staffers during the Clark era, and risen up alongside during the opposition years, and who became two of the most powerful MPs in her government.

And National didn’t just have John Key – it also had a leadership cabal consisting of John Key, Bill English, Steven Joyce and Key’s chief of staff, Wayne Eagleson. Labour didn’t just have Helen Clark. She also had a very powerful chief of staff and a very capable finance minister. Another cabal.

Successful leaders the world over have powerful lieutenants and key advisors. But these informal groups seem to count for a lot more in New Zealand politics. I think that’s down to scale. If you look at the major parties in Australia, they’re a lot more institutional, staffed by professional operatives, whereas over here, even in National – New Zealand’s most professional party, at least in theory – you can show up to an electorate meeting to see what it’s all about and go home as the newly elected regional treasurer. It’s looser, volunteer based. Amateur, if you want to be cruel about it. This means the baseline competence of our major parties is lower. So a united leadership team that centralises decision making within the party, turning it into a simulacrum of a professional organisation, makes all the difference.

It’s hard to build a good cabal, though. You need a group of politicians and operatives who trust, like and complement each other. Simon Bridges’ cabal had Jami-Lee Ross in it and (Jerry Seinfeld voice) that was a bad cabal! A terrible cabal! David Cunliffe’s cabal had David Cunliffe in it: also a poor choice. So leadership is still key. A good leader builds a good cabal around them.

But here’s the problem: the better your cabal, the worse the deluge when they leave. The party is reorganised around the cabal over the decade-or-so that they run everything, so when they leave it collapses back into semi-amateur status. The rival aspirants to the throne go to war with each other. The party might have a string of leaders, but there’s no deep organising power to animate the organisation, which has been structured to suit the preferences and personalities of a leadership team that isn’t there any more. The party is broken until the good cabal assembles and rises.

If this theory is true, then could political parties learn from it? Could they switch effortlessly from cabal to cabal? Maybe there’s a way: a staggered succession, or the party might get lucky and have a replacement team ready and waiting when the old regime falls. But I suspect that good cabals are like good bands: more than just the lead singer, but it’s just not the same when the singer leaves. Many cabals seem to be forged by the bitter internecine warfare that breaks out in that power vacuum. There might not be an easy way to solve the cabal and deluge problem.

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