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OPINIONPoliticsMay 18, 2021

Power ranking Judith Collins’ potential replacements as National leader


We don’t know exactly when it’ll happen, but we can be pretty sure that it will. So who will be the next leader of the National party after Judith Collins goes? 

The polls don’t lie – current National leader Judith Collins is extremely unpopular. Her party is languishing in the high-20s, and only about one in twenty voters want Collins to be the next prime minister. 

Party leaders in this position just don’t really ever survive, especially in high-achieving, politically ruthless environments like the National party. Simon Bridges got the boot with arguably better numbers last year. David Shearer polled poorly in opposition, and didn’t even make it to leading the Labour Party into an election. 

So a leadership change at this stage seems inevitable. But it’s also arguably too soon for any of the potential replacements to step up. So with that in mind, we’re assessing who the most likely next leader of National is – and if it’s a relevant consideration, why it matters so much when they happen to take over, be it this week, next month, next year, or even in the unlikely event that Collins ends up enjoying a long reign as prime minister. 

Most likely immediate takeover: Simon Bridges

If it happens straight away, then the best option is someone who has already done the job before – especially if recent history would suggest he was actually reasonably competent at it. Post-leadership has been fairly kind to Bridges, with his thoughtful and nuanced discussions of what went wrong, and his now infamous yak-tivities on the farm. There’s even a book coming out soon, which is generally a sign that a politician feels they have more to say and do. 

Simon Bridges led the National Party between 2018 to 2020 (Photo: Getty Images)

There are a few problems though. The first is that he’s on record making it very clear that he doesn’t want to be leader of the opposition again, so if he were to do it, there would have to be some element of his colleagues begging him to pick up the wero. And the other problem is that those post-leadership rehabilitation efforts are very visible to people who follow politics closely, but maybe not so much for the general public – many of whom felt he was a plonker at the time, and probably haven’t seen much to change that view since. 

Most likely in a year: Christopher Luxon

Everybody’s talking about when he’s going to have a crack at the leadership, not if. Luxon turns up in the preferred PM polls – the most recent one had him above 2% – and he’s also one of those politicians that people in the general public actually know about. It’s not unusual to hear not particularly political people talk about how National “needs to get that Air New Zealand guy in”. To get even more anecdotal and smooth-brained, it feels like there’s something significant in how a lot of people refer to him as “Luxton”, in the same way that we’ve had prime ministers commonly referred to as “Jacinta” or “John Keys”. There’s vague familiarity there, which for the vast majority of New Zealand’s politicians is about as good as it gets. 

And yet, he’s only been in parliament for eight months. What would it say about the calibre of National MPs if a political toddler became leader ahead of all of them? Has he achieved anything yet as an opposition politician? Does anyone have any idea how he’d handle caucus discipline, or policy development, or his response to a natural disaster, or literally anything the job involves? 

Perhaps we can look to his business background for that. But Luxon took over a well-run and market-dominating Air New Zealand, and managed to hold it at the top for a few years. And as far as comparisons go, that’s not how you’d describe the current National party. 

Christopher Luxon, National’s future king? Photo: Getty

The continuity option: Dr Shane Reti

If the decision is made that Collins just needs to go, and there really isn’t any candidate to replace her, then maybe current deputy Reti could take over. It would probably be looked at as more of an interim leadership, if it happened. Reti clearly has expertise, and seems to be broadly palatable to the country at large, but also doesn’t appear to have sparked much excitement in his own right, nor shown much of the sort of ruthlessness successful leaders normally have. He’s also now tied inextricably to the failing leadership of Collins, which long term is unlikely to be good for his chances. 

Most likely if the party takes a liberal turn: Chris Bishop, Nicola Willis, or Erica Stanford

All three of these MPs have been busy recently, doing weird stuff for politicians like “highlighting issues” and “displaying basic competency”. On the Covid response emergency housing and split migrant families respectively, all have managed to point out government problems that are actually happening, and then put forward potential solutions. It’s revolutionary stuff, and seems unlikely to catch on. 

But internal politics probably mean that none of this trio are really in line for the top job. It’s easy to overstate the importance of factions within National, and while the party is in effect a coalition between liberal and conservative thinkers, those categories aren’t necessarily formalised and firm. But being palatable to the party’s more conservative MPs (and membership base) is clearly still important – and the last time liberal MPs in the party tried to make a leadership coup happen, it didn’t end all that well. 

Most likely if the party decides hard law and order is the only way: Mark Mitchell

He’s a perennial leadership challenger, but each time he puts his name forward very few votes come back. And really though, can Mitchell out-cop Judith Collins? If you want what he’s selling, why not just keep the leader for whom this photo already exists? 

Most likely if, well, no, not actually likely at all: Paul Goldsmith

Once Goldsmith’s name would have been prominent in any discussions about future leadership considerations, but his star has fallen. His performance as National’s finance spokesperson at the last election was dogged with mistakes, which some believe cost the party its image of economic credibility. Maybe a long way down the track Goldsmith will come back into the reckoning, but it won’t happen right away. 

National deputy leader and Bill English and leader John in August 2007 in Auckland, a year before National swept to power (Photo: Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

Most likely if National decides to go back to the tried and tested: John Key

A while ago, I put a conspiratorial suggestion to a National-supporting friend that Key’s recent media prominence was about repositioning himself to run in a by-election, and sweep back into parliament as the presumptive leader in waiting. The friend’s response was to ask if I was high. 

Key got a better preferred PM rating than Collins in the last poll, so there’s clearly some people out there who would welcome his return to politics. But it seems utterly unlikely that he’d trade his probably quite nice and comfortable life now for a return to a life of extremely long hours, difficult decisions, and, even worse, the prospect of losing an election for the first time. 

Most likely if National wants a completely fresh face: Chris Penk

Penk is one of those politicians that seems unusually well-placed on paper. He’s a Navy veteran, is reputed to be genuinely popular in his safe seat, holds fairly conservative social views but doesn’t make a massive deal out of them, is relatively young, and generally comes across as fairly affable. He also wrote a book last year, to, uh, mixed reviews. 

But there would also be an element of spinning the wheel with a selection like that. Anyone can look down the National caucus list and pull out a name like Tim van de Molen, or Nicola Grigg, or Simon Watts, or whoever really, and make about as persuasive and vague a case for them. The thing about people who become MPs is that they tend to have backgrounds that are in some way impressive, and that doesn’t end up counting for much at the top level. 

National MP Chris Penk
Chris Penk (Image : Supplied)

Most likely if the old guard comes back: Gerry Brownlee

Until recently, Gerry Brownlee was the deputy leader. Before that, he had a whole lot of big ministerial jobs, and before that was the deputy leader to Brash. And if you forget about the fact that he got turfed out of his safe seat at the last election, then who knows, maybe there’s some higher purpose for Gerry? Surely there’s got to be some reason why he’s still hanging around. 

Most likely if Labour throw National a bone: Stuart Nash

If you turn up to social netball, and your team doesn’t have enough players, sometimes the other team will loan you one – and sometimes they even gel really well with the game-plan. Napier MP Stuart Nash has always sounded like he’d be equally comfortable in either National or Labour, so perhaps he could be loaned out, in the interests of a functioning democracy. 

Most likely if Collins grimly clings on despite never winning, as the National Party gets whittled away to nothing: Simeon Brown

This is assuming that Collins stays on for about five terms of opposition, and by the end, her only remaining colleague is the guy who was born in 1991, and holds potentially the safest seat in the country. 

And most likely if PM Collins ushers in decades of National Party dominance? 

Max Key has previously threatened to get into politics in 2044, this could be his moment.

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