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Todd Muller speaking to the media at parliament during his leadership bid (Radio NZ, Richard Tindiller)
Todd Muller speaking to the media at parliament during his leadership bid (Radio NZ, Richard Tindiller)

PoliticsJuly 14, 2020

Todd Muller quits as National leader, party looks for immediate replacement

Todd Muller speaking to the media at parliament during his leadership bid (Radio NZ, Richard Tindiller)
Todd Muller speaking to the media at parliament during his leadership bid (Radio NZ, Richard Tindiller)

Todd Muller made the choice of health over politics two months before a general election. National is now scrambling to find a new leader, politics editor Justin Giovannetti reports from parliament.

Former National leader Todd Muller’s resignation shook Wellington this morning, ending one of the shortest leaderships in New Zealand’s modern history.

Only 53 days ago Muller engineered a coup to roll Simon Bridges and take over the largest party in parliament. National was slumping in the polls and an unpopular Bridges was dragging it down. Muller convinced his fellow legislators that a steady hand could right the ship.

With only 66 days to go before the next election, Muller’s bombshell has left National adrift again. The party’s election campaign will need to be rethought, as will election hoardings with a smiling Muller and the slogan: “Strong Team. More Jobs. Better Economy.”

The former leader said in a statement that his decision came after it became clear to him that he wasn’t the right person to lead the party. “That has become untenable from a health perspective,” he said.

Audrey Young, in the New Zealand Herald, reported that Muller has struggled in recent days as his party was swamped by chaos and “had a breakdown” that left him unable to make an emergency caucus call this morning to tender his resignation.

Muller had been scheduled to speak in Auckland today about his party’s infrastructure plans. Staff around the leader didn’t have much of a heads up that the decision was coming.

The party’s legislators are spread out around the country. Parliament is currently in its final weeklong break and MPs are in their electorates preparing for the coming election campaign. They were supposed to return next week.

National’s MPs will be meeting in their caucus room in parliament tonight. They will either select a new leader, or if they can’t reach a decision in the room, will need to set the conditions for a leadership contest. Muller’s deputy, Nikki Kaye, is in charge until a new leader is selected.

Muller’s short leadership was marked by disarray within the party, culminating in the revelation last week that one of National’s MPs leaked the private health information of Covid-19 patients to embarrass the government. A former National Party president then admitted to giving him the information.

The former president has torn up her party membership and MP Hamish Walker won’t be running again in one of National’s safest seats.

Muller has also faced questions over whether he lied in recent days when he said the party’s health critic hadn’t received the leaked information. Nearly a week after he criticised the government for the leak, Micheal Woodhouse admitted to having received similar information.

Muller avoided the media over the weekend, but his deputy said that the leader hadn’t lied.

Despite his troubles, National’s fortunes had begun to rebound under Muller. A Colmar Brunton poll in late June showed the party trailing Labour by 12%, a substantial improvement from the last polls under Bridges. Levels of personal support for Muller were also substantially higher than that enjoyed by his predecessor.

Following his ascent to the leadership in May, Muller faced questions about a Make America Great Again hat from the 2016 Donald Trump presidential campaign. After days of questions, he decided to put the hat in a box.

Muller’s inability to quickly and decisively deal with a story about a baseball cap, first denying the need to act and then backtracking, would be how Muller would deal with a number of small controversies during his time as leader. Spinoff editor Toby Manhire looked at a timeline of Muller’s stormy leadership.

Earlier today, Muller said he’d had enough.

“It has become clear to me that I am not the best person to be Leader of the Opposition and Leader of the New Zealand National Party at this critical time for New Zealand. It is more important than ever that the New Zealand National Party has a leader who is comfortable in the role,” he said in a statement.

Prime minister Jacinda Ardern said she only learned of his decision this morning and thanked him and his family. “No matter what side of parliament you’re sitting, politics is a difficult place,” she said.

In a statement, NZ First leader Winston Peters said there was a “heavy price of trying to lead the National Party today.”

With his deep commercial experience at Zespri and Fonterra, Peters said Muller had the commercial experience to bounce back. Muller said today that he intended to stay on as MP for the Bay of Plenty.

“Leading a divided and incompetent caucus would have tested even the best leader,” said Peters, who is also the deputy prime minister. “Todd never had a chance given the fault lines of ambition, personality, and ideology that run deep through the National Party caucus.”

The next National leader can look across the aisle for inspiration on last-minute campaign changes.

Ardern was elected as Labour’s leader only seven weeks before election day. Her battle to unseat then prime minister Bill English was seen as a difficult one. One difference between Ardern and the next leader of National will be the way they got to power: there was no coup within the Labour party prior to the 2017 election. Alex Braae looked at who is in the running to take over National now that Muller has stepped down.

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