After a disappointing election result, Leighton Baker is out as the leader of the New Conservatives, with former deputy Elliot Ikilei taking over. Alex Braae reports.
After a review of the election campaign, the board of the New Conservative party has voted to “relieve” Leighton Baker of the leadership, opting to promote deputy Elliot Ikilei to the top job.
New Conservative ran a comprehensive campaign in the 2020 election, with candidates in every single seat, but ended up with only 1.4% of the vote, meaning they fell short of the parliamentary threshold.
Baker, who led the party for five years after the turbulence left by former leader Colin Craig, confirmed that it was not his decision to step down, and that he was “obviously disappointed” by the outcome.
He did not confirm whether or not he’d be staying within the party, saying he’d take some time out to have a think about what he wanted to do next. “It’s a good time to do it, too, it’s Christmas time and the beach is calling.”
In a release, the party welcomed Ikilei and new deputy Victoria O’Brien to their roles, saying “they both have strong support within the party and huge respect outside the party. They both have what it takes to lead us through the next phase of our journey.”
An anonymous source within the party, who identified themselves as a former candidate, said there had been some internal ructions caused by the change in leadership. It is understood that there was no membership vote on the change, with the decision being made by the board.
New leader Elliot Ikilei wouldn’t be drawn on specific examples of internal dissent, but said he wouldn’t be surprised if it was the case. “I think it would be extremely odd if you had any leadership change without some kind of drama.”
Ikilei, who is on the board that voted Baker out, said that he hadn’t run any sort of organised campaign to replace Baker, and that it wasn’t a fair characterisation to say he “rolled” the former leader. “There was no organised plan, or ambition to take out Leighton. None whatsoever.”
He also confirmed that there was absolutely no suggestion of any “dodginess” around Baker, alluding to the experience of Colin Craig, who has spent much of the last decade in court litigating cases around alleged sexual harassment.
On Baker, Ikilei said “we’re absolutely grateful to him for being part of a journey, and helping everyone along the way. He’s been a great steady hand on the keel.”
The party’s statement said “no-one can deny Leighton’s devotion to the party and conservative politics over many years and multiple campaigns. The board publicly thanks Leighton for his service and investment, and for continuing to help grow this movement that he has played such a big part in building.”
Ikilei said it was unlikely that there would be significant policy changes as a result of the leadership change, but did say that he’d be taking a more aggressive and “confrontational” approach to presentation style.
Ikilei has often revelled in speaking to hostile crowds, feeding off the energy that more liberal audiences send his way. “I think as you know, I’m a little bit outspoken on certain matters,” he said, referring to his staunchly socially conservative views.
“One of my strengths and weaknesses is that I’m quite blunt. So you can expect a bit more bluntness. Just being a lot more straight.”
The party will have a bit more room to move within their space of politics compared to before the election, with the implosion of the Advance NZ-NZ Public Party alliance also taking place in recent weeks.
Ikilei, a social worker with Niuean, Tongan and Māori heritage, also noted that the party’s leadership team would now be more diverse than most other parties, with Singaporean-New Zealander Victoria O’Brien taking over as deputy.
“It’s quite hilarious now that our leadership is more diverse than parties who put ‘tokens’ in place, when we didn’t even try. We didn’t care [about that] before, and we don’t care now.”
Leighton Baker is the second party leader to go after October election, following the resignation of Opportunities Party leader Geoff Simmons two weeks ago.
Ikilei would not be drawn on the margin by which the board voted for him to take over.
Baker directed all further questions around the leadership change to chairman Simon Gutschlag. He could not be reached for comment.