As the contest unfolds, expect deals, departures and a determination to keep ructions away from public sight, writes former National government adviser Zach Castles.
National’s leadership race has seen an endless stream of topline biographies on three heavy-hitting National MPs who want to lead the National Party and ultimately our country – Amy Adams, Simon Bridges and Judith Collins. As well as that trio, Mark Mitchell and Steven Joyce, equally formidable potential candidates, are at the time of writing yet to declare their hands. Indeed, there could even be more names to come, which will make the next two weeks gripping for political obsessives, and maybe even some who are not.
But what are we really learning about the race? And what are the real implications of it?
The decision is entirely up to National’s caucus. Thankfully any suggestion of a party-wide race has now been totally discredited and for that, National has only Labour to thank, given the turmoil that such a selection process for leader caused that party when it was in opposition. So when we analyse National’s leadership contest, there are a few things to watch out for over the next few weeks.
We are unlikely to see any of the leadership candidates themselves doing deals on the deputy leadership or other senior roles, like Finance. That task will be left to the people around them by working the phones and wearing out the carpet between offices in parliament’s own ‘West Wing’.
Deal-making might not necessarily extend just to guaranteeing roles. There are three candidates in this race (so far) and the outcome will be determined by an exhaustive ballot. It is a given that the least preferred candidate will be eliminated in the first ballot. On the second ballot, assuming no one candidate receives more than half the votes, the eliminated candidate’s votes would go somewhere else. This is where deals especially come in to play.
The mere fact all three candidates have now declared their intention to contest the leadership has probably secured them a senior role under the next leader – none will be going to the backbench after this is over.
Byelections and retiring MPs
Deals aside, the fact of the matter is that whoever emerges as leader will have to rejig the front and mid-bench – the question is to what extent rather than if. And if substantial reshuffles are made by a new leader, they are likely to trigger the exit of any number of MPs. How byelections are managed for those with constituencies who go, and replacements for retiring list MPs, becomes massively important. National was shrewd to invite members on its list to its two-day caucus in Tauranga last week given the possibility of imminent retirements. The number of departures, and a new leader’s ability to influence those, will be at issue as the leadership contest is under way.
In the words of a Roman general “if you want peace, be prepared for war”. Instability occurs when people do not perform. National is somewhat haunted by the chaos and dysfunction that characterised Labour’s time in Opposition, and no one can doubt National’s determination to avoid that. However, National’s challenge is not so much to suppress division as it is to maintain its vaunted stability while ensuring a serious and credible transition to a new leader the public and caucus will recognise.
Many in the mainstream media are quick to point out that National has not been confronted with such a dilemma in 12 years but this is only because it has continually replenished its ranks at all levels.
Rejuvenation, the need for new ideas to capture imaginations, and getting into a position to win the next election are all the crucial factors that will bear on the minds of National MPs. Whoever succeeds Bill English will have an immensely difficult job balancing these requirements and others – but as Jenny Shipley once said “this ain’t a damn beauty contest”.
Zach Castles was a political adviser to two senior cabinet ministers in the fifth National-led government
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