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The National Party caucus as of 2018 (File photo)
The National Party caucus as of 2018 (File photo)

PoliticsJuly 14, 2020

With Todd Muller out, who will take over as National leader?

The National Party caucus as of 2018 (File photo)
The National Party caucus as of 2018 (File photo)

With just over two months to go before the election, National suddenly, shockingly finds itself in need of a new leader. Who are the potential candidates?

Late leadership changes before an election aren’t unheard of in politics. The current prime minister is living proof of that, taking over from Andrew Little as Labour leader just weeks before voting started last time around.

But in the case of Jacinda Ardern, she was the only natural successor to take over in the role within Labour, and was at the time the deputy leader. With the current National party – which has already had tough times this year around a leadership coup – it’s much less clear who could step into the top job.

We’re likely to find out rather quickly who it will be, because the party simply doesn’t have any time to waste getting someone new into the job. But there are many potential candidates who could step up at this late hour. Here are our picks for the most likely.

Step up Nikki Kaye

Hey, it worked for Labour right? Nikki Kaye is already on all the billboards as Muller’s deputy, and would represent a continuity of the current leadership team. And it would seem likely that if Kaye stepped into the leadership, most of the staff would also stay in place, which is an under-rated consideration going into an election. And don’t forget: she has beaten Jacinda Ardern twice in Auckland Central.

But Kaye hasn’t exactly covered herself in glory during the tenure of Muller, either. She’s been notable mostly for the blunder around whether finance spokesperson Paul Goldsmith is Māori (he isn’t, she said he was) and most recently had to endure a marathon 13 minute Q+A interview defending Muller and health spokesperson Michael Woodhouse, amid allegations that they hadn’t been honest about leaks from Michelle Boag.

Moreover, does Kaye even want the top job? Some MPs clearly do – like Bridges and Collins, for example, and there’s nothing wrong with ambition in people who aspire to the highest offices. But it has never been obvious that Kaye is really hungry to be PM in the same way.

Update, 9.15am: Nikki Kaye has been elected acting leader of the party, pending a final decision being made by caucus. 

It’s finally time for Judith Collins

She has been a potential leader in waiting for years now, has just released a book, and is probably the most widely known MP in the National caucus right now. People know what Collins stands for, so a lot of the hard work of introducing a new leader would already have been done. Notably, she’s also the only other National MP who ever really turns up in the preferred PM rankings.

The problem for Collins is that for a lot of people, the more they see of her, the less they like her. She’s had a deeply polarising career, and it’s fair to say the views on her both in caucus and among the wider public are very mixed. She’d certainly shore up the National base going into the election, and save the party from electoral oblivion. But it seems deeply unlikely that she’d be able to win over any of the centre-ground, that National desperately needs if it’s going to actually win.

Bring back Simon Bridges

Reportedly, Simon Bridges only lost the leadership by one vote, when Todd Muller challenged him earlier this year. That indicates that a significant chunk of the party were happy to see him stay on, and would probably see going back to him as a safe option. Since losing the leadership, Bridges has also seemingly found inner peace as a social media content creator and yak farmer, so it’s possible he would come back into the job with renewed enthusiasm.

On the other hand, it’s easy to forget just how horrifically unpopular he was when the coup took place. Bridges had plunged to around 5% in the preferred PM stakes, had massive net-negative favourability ratings, and had seemingly lost the ability to connect with the electorate. It would also just look ridiculous for a political party to dump one leader, and then get them back in a few months later with an election bearing down.

If the election is about the economy, what about Paul Goldsmith?

Goldsmith was one of the few MPs to retain a top post when Muller took over from Bridges, holding onto the finance portfolio. He’s got fairly economically right-wing views, so National supporters would probably be fairly happy with him in charge. Act would be thrilled to go into a coalition with a Goldsmith-led National party as well, as they’d be on the same page on a lot of matters.

But speaking of Act, that’s a bit of a sticking point against Goldsmith. He’s almost certainly going to lose the Epsom electorate to David Seymour. Moreover, even if Goldsmith decided to run hard, he might still lose anyway – Seymour’s hold over the leafy electorate is now very strong. As Labour found out with Andrew Little, it looks a bit ridiculous for a major party to have a leader that can’t win their electorate.

Throw it to a safe pair of hands

There are two names that come to mind here: Amy Adams and Gerry Brownlee. Both have been around for a long time, held high ministerial posts, and are generally respected as being competent and intelligent people. Either would be the sort that you could imagine stepping in as acting-PM if National were in government and there was an emergency vacancy.

But both have significant drawbacks to overcome. For Brownlee, it is his deep unpopularity in parts of Christchurch for the autocratic way that he handled the earthquake rebuild, even if he remains popular in his Ilam electorate. And for Adams, there is also the question of hunger – until relatively recently, she was on the way out of parliament, until un-retiring to serve under Muller.

On that note, could Paula Bennett come back?

Anything is possible, and depending on who takes over, she might decide to at least stick around. There’s no reason why she couldn’t, of course – all it would involve is getting her spot on the list back. But again, it just seems unlikely that the public would accept the idea that someone who had one foot out the door would jump straight back in.

What about a dark horse, like Mark Mitchell?

The hardline MP for Rodney/Whangapāroa would certainly shore up the base as well, and has some media profile to lean on – particularly through his regular slots on Newstalk ZB. We know that he wants the top job, because he’s run once, and been speculated about as a potential challenger at other times – you might recall that before the Muller coup, the rumour was that he was going to have a crack. But the thing about those challenges (real or otherwise) is that they’ve never shown any evidence of real momentum, and have evaporated at the moment of truth. In the past he definitely hasn’t had the support of caucus to come close to winning, and it’s hard to see why that would have changed.

Does the leader even need to be an MP?

According to the National Party rules, yes, they do. But maybe they could decide to tweak that, given former Air NZ boss and rumoured future contender Christopher Luxon is almost certainly going to win in Botany. Honestly, at this stage, why not?

Keep going!